The Frequency Illusion


by Roxanne Tellier

Have you ever bought a car, and suddenly noticed that nearly every car you see is the same colour and style? Or, if you are pregnant, have you been surprised to see that it seems that everybody else is pregnant as well?   

This is known as the frequency illusion, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s something that happens thru two separate psychological processes –selective attention and confirmation bias – coming together, that makes us believe that there is more going on around us than what meets the eye.

You’ve probably noticed something similar during the last two years, as we’ve dealt with COVID. Our ‘selective attention’ can force us to overlook a lot of other news that might normally catch our eye, since most of us are hyper-focused on anything new or important to do with the protections necessary to fend off the virus.

Confirmation bias leads us to search out this news, and to find ‘experts’ that agree with our already held beliefs. That’s why those people who are convinced that there is something wrong with the vaccines cannot stop searching out those that agree with them. They are desperate to find others who share their thoughts.

Whether it’s COVID, pregnant women, or the incredible number of red vans that prowl the streets of Toronto, becoming aware of something you hadn’t noticed before can throw you for a loop.  

Since my little cat died a few weeks ago, I’ve become hyper aware of how many people have also lost pets recently. But it’s quite likely that my sadness and grief has made me more sensitive to information from those who are also dealing with losses.

It is, of course, the frequency illusion that has concentrated my attention on what appears to be an explosion of ill health amongst furry critters that so many of us have been experiencing. If I were not aware of this phenomenon, I might begin to believe that there is something sinister happening to our four-legged friends. There isn’t; it’s just a coincidence that the time of year, the weather, and the inevitable aging of our pets would have to eventually culminate in their passing on.

Whenever something occurs on which we become focused, there are several roads that appear before us. So it was for me, with my mourning of my long-time furry companion.

While I don’t know how I feel about adopting another animal any time soon, I’m very aware of how beneficial it can be to singles and seniors to have a pet that gives them a focus. We grow so close to our little friends, and they give us so much in return.

But pet love is increasingly expensive, and vet bills can cause pet owners a lot of pain – emotionally and financially. Trying to decide when to let a pet go, or when to engage in an expensive fight for its life, often depends on how much money we can devote to that fight.

Pets are incredibly important in the quality of life for those who spend a lot of time alone. My experiences with seniors and senior pets have shown me that there is a need for organizations to help defray final costs. In the future, I’d like to find a way to work with groups working to make that difficult time a little easier for both the human and the pet.

A few days after Farley died, and in the midst of a flurry of friends dealing with the unexpected losses of their pets, a fellow whom I’ve known for many years suddenly went on a Facebook rampage, in which he posited that there was something wrong with those who deeply mourn their pets. Unspoken but inferred was that the public mourning of a furry friend went beyond odd to possibly immoral. He contended that no one could or should equate the loss of a dog or a cat to the loss of a human child.

Of course, these are two very different kinds of losses; a pet is not a human being that we have brought forth from our own bodies.

On the other hand, many people don’t have children. Some never wanted to have children. And still others have children that they rarely see or have interactions with. Regardless of the circumstances, it seemed odd for someone to feel that they had the right to publicly pass judgment over how other people choose to express their grief at the passing of their pets.  

I tried to explain that pets play different roles in different times of our lives; during COVID, many people adopted pets to take the place of people they couldn’t see in their isolation. The loss of a pet that has been a constant companion, that is, in some cases, a reason to get up in the morning, can often be no less painful than the loss of a person whom one loves, but with whom one has less frequent physical contact.

This fellow’s insistence on being the sole arbiter of what qualifies as a justifiable emotional pain felt like bullying to me.

I was not the only breathing creature dealing with the loss of Farley; his long-time feline companion was mourning as well. During Farley’s last days, Lady Jade tried to give him comfort, by crawling into his bed and sharing her warmth. For about 17 years, they shared their beds, their treats, and their lives.

After his final trip to the vet, little Jade, who is 18, blind, and quite small, was bereft. She crept quietly around the house, searching for him. She would silently appear in dark spaces, and was often in danger of being crushed by our feet when we’d fail to realize she was there. The only time she would calm was when either Shawn or I would hold her on our laps.

Since we’re packing and preparing to move house, I was having to choose between doing what was necessary, and comforting my poor old kitty. I needed a solution, and came up with an idea.

I often use an organization called Freecycle to give away items that I no longer need, and to find odd things I’m looking for. In this case, I put up a request for a child wrap, or some kind of carrier, that would allow me to cradle Jade against my body, but still allow me to have movement to do household chores, pack, or even to just answer the door without having to disturb her.  

Cat slings – it’s a thing.

Within a few days, I received an email from someone who wanted to know if I’d had any luck with my request. This woman was concerned because she’d had a similar situation when her older dog had passed, and his cat companion mourned him so deeply that a vet’s attention was necessary to prevent the cat from dying of grief. 

This freecycler wanted to help, and by the next morning, she had decided that she would buy a baby wrap, called a ‘Cuddle Bug,’ that I could use for Jade, and we made arrangements for delivery.

When the packages arrived from Amazon that evening, I was stunned to see the extent of her generosity. Not only had she sent the wrap, she’d also sent an array of Jade’s favorite foods, and a new cat treat – Squeeze Ups – that I’d never heard of that must be kitty crack, because Jade can’t get enough of it.

I was quite dumbfounded by the kindness of this stranger.

In my mourning, there are lessons to be learned. I clarified to myself that my future would involve somehow being of help to others dealing with pet illness and death. I have seen the ugly side of someone who is unable to empathize with the pain that others feel, but I’ve also seen the beauty of a total stranger who responds with their whole heart to a cry for help from someone in pain. 

Funny how life can show us the many ways that we can choose to live and interact with each other. Many paths lead us forward, but nothing is quite as wonderful as being able to grab hold of a hand that helps us in choosing the right direction, out of our pain, and into a shared light.

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