- Coincidence. Coincidences occur every day in everyone's life. Some are trivial, as when two people reaching for a door at the same time, but others grab our attention, as when you are thinking of a friend only to have them call you on the phone moments later. What these events have in common is our intense desire to explain them, a belief that there is a special reason things happen the way they do. What most people do not know or do not want to believe is that most coincidences, even remarkable ones, are merely inevitable occurrences with no special significance at all. There are many simple reasons why most people misinterpret coincidences:
- We have a poor innate grasp of probability.
- We believe that all effects must have deliberate causes.
- We do not understand the laws regarding truly large numbers.
- We easily succumb to selective validation, the tendency to remember only positive correlations and forget the far more numerous misses.
People with a poor understanding of probability and statistics, which is most people, are more amazed than they should be when confronted with coincidences, hence, they jump to metaphysical explanations. They tend to believe in the mystic powers of the pseudo-masters. Some believe to the extent that they become followers of a pseudo-master and become part of a cult.
The true significance of bizarre coincidences may be understood more fully with what is called the law of truly large numbers. This widely accepted law of statistics states that with a large enough sample size, even the extremely unlikely becomes likely, and therefore, any outrageous event may occur. When enough people are involved, "unusual" occurrences become highly probable.
Human memory is not like a tape recorder, faithfully recording everything experienced. Dramatic experiences tend to be remembered more than others. This leads to a phenomenon called subjective validation, more commonly known as selective memory. Therefore, it is only natural to remember unusual experiences. Returning to our friend who calls soon after you think about him, this event becomes much less extraordinary if we consider how many times we have thought of friends who did not call.
A common ploy used by psychics is to make dozens of predictions knowing that the more that are made, the better the odds are that one will be correct. When one comes true, the psychic counts on us to forget conveniently the 99 percent that were incorrect. This makes the correct predictions seem much more compelling than they really are.
Our coincidence-detection abilities have been finely honed through the ages by evolution and natural selection. Being able to spot significant correlations between events would present an important survival advantage to our ancestors, which would then be passed through the generations. We may therefore speculate that man is hardwired to look everywhere for patterns and connections. Modem culture, however, with its myriad connections between events and people, activates these abilities at every turn, causing us to continually suggest explanations and invoke strange forces, such as psychic powers, that do not exist.
Not all coincidences are meaningless and should be ignored. Truly unlikely events may have some underlying significance. However, the vast majority of coincidences that we experience turn out to be much more probable than they appear.
- << Prev