Why You See More of What You Are Looking For

Why does that cool word you just learned start appearing everywhere you look?

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” ― John Lubbock

Have you ever developed a keen interest in something new only to see it pop up frequently? You wonder how you missed what must have been right in front of you all along.

Not so fast. Your mind is distorting reality to seek out this new thing in your environment.

It’s like introducing your dog to a tennis ball. Your dog then finds and returns slobbery tennis balls from all over the neighborhood. The adorable, excitable dog is your brain aiming to please. The tennis ball is the new thing it is hyper-focused on.

Oddly interesting and often disconcerting to say the least.

Here are a few more examples of this phenomenon known as “frequency illusion:”

  • Learn a new word and see it pop up everywhere shortly thereafter. You even see the pesky thing in your dreams!

  • Buy a new car and you see the same car more often on the road. You can’t believe how many people copied you.

  • Having a baby? You start seeing pregnant women and babies all over the place. It’s an epidemic!

Your brain is trying to help by finding the new thing of interest in your environment for further study. You, in turn, overreact and misinterpret the frequency of occurrence, not realizing it was there all along in the same numbers. You just weren’t paying attention. Silly human!

The term “frequency illusion” was coined in 2006 by a Stanford University linguist named Arnold Zwicky, who describes this form of cognitive bias as a composition of two others: selective attention and confirmation bias. Your selective attention focuses on new things and discards others. Your confirmation bias misinterprets the frequency of occurrence in reality.

Frequency illusion is more curious than troublesome, but it can cloud your judgment. You are less likely to notice important details of everyday things, and your tendency to overvalue what you focus on definitely distorts reality.

The trick is being aware of it. You can then use the selective attention part to help focus your efforts while checking the confirmation bias part in your tendency to misinterpret the importance of what is newly acquired.

Oh, look! Fluffy just dropped another tennis ball in my lap. Sigh...