Frequency illusion

In 2006 Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky came up with the phrase “frequency illusion” to describe the phenomenon of how once you learn about or are looking for something, you start seeing it everywhere. (Some people call it the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.)

Need examples? My family was recently looking for a used car. All of a sudden I started seeing used cars for sale on the side of the road. Or maybe you’re considering getting a tattoo, and now you see them on everyone. Maybe you’re interested in CrossFit, and soon you discover that 12 of your friends have already joined. 

You know, it’s not like all of a sudden there were more cars, tattoos, or people doing CrossFit. Instead, as the professor explained, it’s that your brain is actually paying attention to these topics now.

It seems we all use the frequency illusion to look for the bad. And that’s really easy to do—which leads us to getting demoralized. Honestly, I’m so, so tired of seeing how cruelly people are treating each other. I know people who praised the man who shot U.S. Representative Steve Scalise. They hate Steve Scalise because his political views are different, so they believe the shooting was justified. 

Then I read about the teens who laughed while a disabled man was drowning—and recorded the mocking. 

And, Church, don’t get too arrogant about this “evil” world. It’s inside our doors too. The place that is supposed to be our spiritual refuge is still full of modern-day Pharisees, politics, jealousy, and complacency.

Frankly, I’ve kind of been in a funk, worn down by it all. So I started using the frequency illusion to look for the good. Not in the big things, but in the little things. And you know what? I’ve been seeing it. 

My family was hosting a big event at our home. A friend couldn’t make it, but she wanted to participate. You know what she did? She came to my house that morning and cleaned my bathroom! (Small thing to her, but to me it was a big thing!)

I was in line at a coffee shop when the man at the counter discovered he didn’t have any money left on his gift card. The woman in front of me opened up her wallet and handed him a five-dollar bill.

A man died in a car accident on the county highway in front of my house. My kids took bottled water to the first responders.

A family’s lemonade stand was stolen—and community members rallied to replace it.

When you start looking for it, you start seeing it. People holding doors for the person behind them, sending a sympathy card, offering encouragement, mowing someone’s lawn, sharing their garden’s bounty. Once you see it, you’ll keep seeing it. 

Then you can praise our Father in heaven. 

Because “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

That’s not an illusion. That’s the truth.

Linda Buxa is a writer, Bible study leader, and retreat speaker. She’s really still so thankful that God blessed her with a friend who was willing to clean her bathroom.