The Frequency Illusion bias can be a funny thing. And I’m not only saying this because for some strange reason it is also called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The Frequency Illusion is when people learn or notice something new they start seeing it everywhere. It is why pregnant women see pregnant women everywhere. Or take myself. Last winter we bought another car we are extremely satisfied with. Afterwards I started noticing the same model and make everywher. Same colour even. There appear to be zillions of them in our little part of the world.

It can also happen in a professional sense like when you learn something new and then recognise it in many events and situations that you come across. You actually you have to watch out for this so that you don’t over-do it and attribute every event and every situation to that new thing, be it culture, drift, complexity or whatever.

Still, once you start studying human factors you will recognise a lot of stuff therefrom in everyday life, and media. Sometimes you even come across some rather funny examples. Let’s look at one.

Art Destroyed

You may have heard about this case on the news a week or so ago. The headline that brought it to my attention said: “Old Lady Destroys Piece Of Art in German Museum”.

Upon reading that headline some thoughts popped in my head, immediately. Vandalism? Not likely (but not impossible), being an old lady. Dementia? That’s more of a possibility… But wait, we are so quick with our judgements and biases. Another thing to watch out for, even more maybe than seeing things we learned recently. Let’s first get some information.

What had happened was that the lady in question was on a day out to an art museum with the nursing home where she lives. One of the pieces of art, made by avant-garde artist Arthur Köpcke in 1965, looks like a giant unfinished crossword puzzle.

What the old lady (aged 90) did was finish some missing parts of the puzzle. Which gets me laughing aloud, but that is just my sense of humour.

How on Earth…

At first one may wonder “How could she do that?!”. She was in a museum after all, isn’t it ‘common sense’ that you cannot and shall not write on pieces of art in a museum? She must be dementing!

But, as the interviews in the media show, she may be living in a nursing home, this old lady had her senses very much together. And while the Mirror calls it an error, the lady even admits to that she did it on purpose! Vandalism after all then? 

No! A perfect example for local rationality. If you look at the context the actions of the old lady make perfect sense.

Local rationality

Perfect sense? Come on, some may say, as you mentioned above this was a museum! Right, but:

  • This museum (of modern art) contains a lot of interactive art where visitors are encouraged to interact with the pieces of art.
  • Not this one, but that was not made explicitly clear. Instead there was the clear instruction, or at least encouragement on the piece of art, saying "insert words".
  • The lady therefore believed that she would be acting in the artist’s interest and intention if she did insert words.
  • Because she was not carrying one herself, she went to borrow a pen from the museum staff making her intentions clear. Nobody stopped her.

Looking at this context the old lady’s actions make a lot of sense. People do things because it makes sense to them at that moment and place, given their current knowledge, resources and goals. That is what local rationality means in a nutshell: it makes sense for that person, at that moment, at that place.


Interestingly, the old lady may actually have done the artist and owner of the piece a favour. The piece was rather unknown before she ‘reworked’ it. After it was in the news all over the world the value has gone up significantly.

By the way, this was not the first time that people unknowingly destroy ‘art’ framing it in their context and local rationality, the most famous probably being Joseph Beuys’ Fettecke (‘grease corner’) being ‘cleaned up’. Maybe this should be a hint for some artists that they should make their art recognizable as such. Environment determines behaviour in a major way, after all.

p.s. The museum has now put up a sign telling visitors that the crossword is NOT one of their interactive pieces of art…


Also published on Linkedin.