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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mental "Glitches" Are Slowing EV Sales (Part 5 - Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon)

Welcome to part 5 of our series of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. We are examining these biases that we all have and how they could be impacting the mass adoption of plug-in vehicles. We have looked at Cognitive Dissonance, Status Quo Bias, Confirmation Bias, and Ingroup Bias. In this post, we'll be looking at Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Have you ever learned a new word and then in the following few days you run across it several times? This is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Expanding on this concept, have you ever bought a new car, then suddenly you start seeing that model on roads all over the place. For my last example, when my wife was pregnant, it seemed like I was seeing pregnant women everywhere we went.

This phenomenon is one example of how our attentiveness can be primed. As we walk through the world, our previous experiences determine what we see as salient and what is filtered out.

In some cases, there really is an external change that causes a spike in some events. These seeming coincidences could just be a statistical clustering of events or they could have a common, perhaps non-obvious, source such as a meme or trend. With the word example, perhaps it was used in an influential article or speech and this spurred other writers to use the word or phrase.

In other cases, your attentiveness has changed. As in the car example, buying a new car is a big purchase and an emotional experience. The number of similar cars on the road didn't change from the day before you made your purchase. They were there before, but they didn't have the same level of emotional connection. What has changed is your ability to notice them (selective perception bias).

In yet other cases, this is can be because your exposure to the item of note has changed. In the example of my pregnant wife, we were going to the obstetrician's office and birthing classes, and we were of an age that many of our friends were also starting or expanding their family.

There you have it, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon can be a coincidence, a trend, selective attentiveness, or a change in your exposure of a constant.

Why We Filter 

Let's look at the selective attentiveness aspect of Baader-Meinhof a little more. If priming can make us aware of things that were already there of which we were previously ignorant, then it stands to reason that there are other things that we are currently exposed to but not perceiving. What advantage would there be for our brain to keep us ignorant of things in our surroundings?

Filtering is vital for decision making 

When driving, we don't notice the make, model, license plate number, and driver details of every vehicle around. It is enough to notice if they are staying in their lane and then use our attention to think about what we are doing to do that evening or to listen the radio. If you were trying to assimilate all this information, you would likely rearend the car in front of you when they stopped and you didn't notice because you were noting the eye color of driver in an oncoming car as they passed by you.

While awake, our brains are constantly drown in torrent of information streaming in from our senses. To understand the world, this data has to be manageable. That means in complex scenes, only the things with 'significance' get through the filters. This is a mechanism to help us make sense of the world.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon Applied to Plug-in Vehicles

How does this apply to plug-in vehicles and the public infrastructure they plug into?


One of the primary objections to plug-in vehicles is that there is not enough infrastrastructure to support them. This is the, so-called, chicken-and-egg problem (EVs need infrastructure before people will buy them, but there is no reason to build infrastructure when there are so few plug-in cars on the road).

I would argue that there is EV infrastructure, it is just that most people are selectively blind to it. It fails to meet the Baader-Meinhof significance test and it is glossed over. Below are some examples of EV charging infrastructure.

Various EV charging infrastructure (not to scale)
These are not consistent in their appearance. They could easily be dismissed as a parking meter or other utility access items. Unless you have used these, you could be walking or driving past one or more per day and not even notice them. To see how many charging stations are in your region, open plugshare.com, type in your zipcode and look around.

Below is a screenshot of the Portland, Oregon area where I live. You can see that there are charging stations all over the place. There are DC Fast Charge stations (orange), Level 2 stations (green), and even people that will let you charge up at their house (shown in blue).

Plugshare listing of Portland Oregon 2014

Furthermore, EV drivers know that nearly any outlet can be used to charge up their car. There are millions of outlets in the US. Nearly every house has an outlet in the garage and/or an outdoor outlet that can used for holiday lights. Many RV campgrounds are happy to let you plug-in too.

Despite Portland currently having more infrastructure per capita than any other city in the US, when I am displaying my car at events, I still hear people say "As soon as they have more charging stations, I'll consider getting a plug-in car."

My point is that some people say "there is no infrastructure", whereas others see us as awash in it. Filtering and confirmation bias explain how these two groups can live in the same world and see it very differently.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon Applied to EVs

In a similar manner to the EV infrastructure, many people don't see the EVs that are out there. Given that there were only two mass produced models on sale in 2011, EVs have come a long way.

As of the time I am writing this, Plug In America.org estimates that there are 257,222 plug-in vehicles on the road in the US.
October 2014 estimate from PlugInAmerica.org
For those that assume this is "just a west coast thing", you may be surprised to hear that for the first half of 2014, Georgia outsold all other states. Utah, Arizona, and Tennessee are also in the top ten.

EV sales are still small, relative to the total car market. But the rate has been growing exponentially and the first half of 2014 is 84% higher than the 2013 rate.

There have been several studies and stories that show that one person in a community can clear the doubt and the veil that hides EVs from sight and then spark a neighborhood or community to adopt plug-in vehicles. Nissan spokesperson, Brian Brockman said “We find that once you have one or two people in a neighborhood driving a Leaf, they share stories about the benefits with friends, family and coworkers, which leads to additional sales,” in an interview with NextCity. Tesla has reported similar clustering of sales.

Just the act of the new technology showing up on a neighborhood driveway can disrupt the status quo bias and if the new owner is a member of the local ingroup, this would allow plug-in cars to get true consideration.