• Robb G. Best

The Frequency Illusion: How Not to Fall for Argle-Bargle

Let’s say you’re reading up on landmark Supreme Court decisions of the past decade. (Hey, everybody needs hobbies.) You’re skimming an article from 2013 about the abolition of DOMA, when you encounter a soundbite from the late Justice Scalia, dismissing his opponent’s arguments as “legalistic argle-bargle.”

Hold on a minute. You blink at the page. “Argle-bargle”? Is that a typo? If so, what would it possibly be a typo for? You backtrack and discover, nope, that quote appears in multiple sources.

Just what’s going on here? Had Justice Scalia taken leave of his senses? Your answer might depend on your political beliefs, but at least as far as this particular phrase goes, the man was not talking nonsense. As The Atlantic explained to its confused readers at the time, Antonin was simply using an old-fashioned Scottish word for “nonsense,” basically an across-the-pond equivalent to “mumbo-jumbo.”

You absent-mindedly add a new word to your vocabulary, and continue on with your work.

And that’s where things get weird.

The next morning, you check Facebook. Your co-worker who loves goofy board games is posting about a new card game where you play by creatively insulting your friends. Its name? Argle-Bargle.

That weekend, you decide to watch a few old episodes of the Simpsons, but all is not well in Springfield. “Tonight on Smartline,” says cartoon news anchor Kent Brockman, “the power plant strike: argle-bargle, or fooforaw?”

This is no longer a one-time oddity, and you’re a little shaken. Maybe it’s time to wind down with some music. Didn’t your friend recommend some mellow acoustic group from Birmingham last month? You click back to the link she sent you, and the band’s name stares back at you. Argle-bargle.

Before reading that article, you wouldn’t have been able to recall hearing or seeing it a single time in your entire life, and now it seems inescapable. What gives? Are you being haunted by the ghost of Antonin Scalia?

Before you call the Ghostbusters, you might want to Google “frequency illusion.” It’s also known as the “Baader-Meinhof effect.” (Interestingly, it’s not named for its discoverers. During the Cold War, a reader wrote into St. Paul Press remarking that, after learning about the Baader-Meinhof West German radicals, their name seemed to be popping up everywhere.)

The good news is: it’s all in your head. The brain has limited capacity to sort through the vast amounts of information we’re exposed to every day. You might be surprised how easy it can be for one random data point to get tagged as relevant and rise to the top of the pile. Personal relevance is a big part of this—you’re probably pretty good at picking out the sound of your name in a crowded restaurant, or the sight of a loved one in a crowd. However, novelty is a factor as well. A word is much more likely to jump out at you if you’ve just learned what it means.

Your co-worker could’ve even posted about that card game before, but without context, maybe the name failed to catch your eye as you scrolled through social media. Your friend could’ve mentioned that band at a party last week, but maybe you didn’t notice because someone else was calling your name.

So no, there's no conspiracy here. Nothing has changed, except, temporarily, the filter through which you view the world. The grouchy vengeful spirit of a conservative Supreme Court Justice is not following you around. That’s just a bunch of—well, you know.


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