Zwicky's Trifecta of Illusions

Linguist Arnold Zwicky has named three linguistic 'illusions' which seem relevant to cognitive bias. They are:

  1. Frequency Illusion - Once you've noticed a phenomenon, it seems to happen a lot.
  2. Recency Illusion - The belief that something is a recent phenomenon, when it has actually existed a long time.
  3. Adolescent Illusion - The belief that adolescents are the cause of undesirable language trends.

Zwicky talks about them here, and in not so many words links them to the standard bias of selective perception.

As an example, here is an exerpt via Jerz's Literacy Weblog (originally via David Crystal), regarding text messages:

  • Text messages aren't full of abbreviations - typically less than ten percent of the words use them. [Frequency Illusion]
  • These abbreviations aren't a new language - they've been around for decades. [Recency Illusion]
  • They aren't just used by kids - adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days. [Adolescent Illusion]

It is my conjecture that these illusions are notable in areas other than linguistics. For example, history is rife with allusions that the younger generation is corrupt, and such speakers are not merely referring to their use of language. Could this be the adolescent illusion in action?

So, are these notable biases to watch out for, or are they merely obvious instances of standard biases?

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I think the Adolescent Illusion could be generalized simply by removing the word "language".

Agreed. My conjecture was that there were similar moves to be made for each of them.

The frequency illusion seems to be the recency effect in the form of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Amusingly, if not ironically, this is the third time this week I have had cause to reference the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, having not thought of it for months prior.

Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

It appears several times on this very page - uncanny!

Text messages aren't full of abbreviations - typically less than ten percent of the words use them. [Frequency Illusion]

It would be interesting to see where this data comes from. Teens are probably a minority of texters. The older people get, I would bet the less likely they are to use abbreviations, and the less likely they are to use mostly abbreviations. If you also count business-generated text messages, it would be pretty easy to dilute the extremely heavy use of text messages by a subgroup. Also, "typically less than 10% of words use them," is highly ambiguous; if it's per-distinct-word rather than per-word-used, you could have 10% of words (I, you, can, later, soon, etc.) being used, say, 60% of the time.

These abbreviations aren't a new language - they've been around for decades. [Recency Illusion]

This doesn't really convince me. Yeah, the Atkins diet was invented in 1972. But you probably never heard of it until about 2002, when it actually became popular. Calling it a new diet in 2002 seems legitimate to me. The fact that some guy in the 40's used "l8r" because he wanted a unique license plate doesn't seem relevant to teenagers using it now texting; when people think of it as a recent phenomenon, they are thinking of its prevalence, not whether someone, somewhere used it once. I've seen no evidence that many texting abbreviations have been prevalent before now, even if they have been used occasionally. The other examples on the Wikipedia page make more sense; I'd be more inclined to believe they've been in common use for a while, but people deploring them now claim they're a recent development.

It's funny how many of the comments focused on these examples. I probably should have written up more about the 'text messages' angle; I was just using that as one example of someone referring to Zwicky's 'illusions'.

I'm not sure if you looked at Crystal's blog entry I linked to above. He spells out some of the interesting bits, albeit anecdotally. Presumably, the book goes into much more detail. For example:

For every one instance of u, there are nine of you, they found.

Also, I can't seem to find the reference at the moment, but I was recently reading a list of common abbreviations used in letter writing long before texting, like SWAK for "Sealed with a kiss".

I will note a shortcoming in Jerz's analysis - whether or not kids are the leading texters, they may be the leading originators of undesirable language trends.

The adolescent illusion seems tied to representativeness, with perhaps a tinge of in/out groupness.

The frequency and recency illusions show up in cases like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

I will note a shortcoming in Jerz's analysis

To clarify, that's actually from an article written by a reporter after having interviewed Crystal. I don't have a reference to Crystal's work handy to determine whether his claim would have the same form. Given that his aim was the study of language, I would guess that he had originally been referring to origination of 'undesirable' trends in texting by adults.

The Wikipedia article for Adolescent Illusion seems to list a few others that might be relevant, but I didn't include them in the article because I was unsure of the sources and they don't seem to be originated in the same context.