May 23, 2013

The Charm of Coincidence

My dad just moved house and cleared out his stuff, and I was very happy to be given this relic from my childhood, now yellowed and cracked like ancient parchment.  When I was a kid my dad went on business trips to America and on one of them he brought back this:

You can read the list of Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences, and an explanation of the "mystery", at Snopes.

Before the internet could debunk this with a simple search, I was utterly captivated by this list of coincidences. It seemed so strange (though even I could see some of the comparisons were a bit of a stretch). I didn't for a minute believe there was any kind of "fate" or weird time travel conspiracy linking Lincoln and Kennedy. I just thought it was one of life's weird, puzzling little mysteries.

Like most humans I'm fascinated by questions of chance, risk, cause and coincidence. We find it so hard to believe things are random, pure luck or unconnected. Most scientists believe this is an evolutionary 'side effect' of our beneficial ability to 'join the dots', connect and analyse.

Some examples of things we find hard to accept are random (or at least not determined by the things we think they are), are:

  • apparent psychic ability - telepathy, predicting the future
  • the feeling of being stared at - the belief we can will someone to look at us by staring at them
  • poker machine spins 
  • human evolution
  • lotteries
  • surviving a disaster 
  • meeting your partner

Some things truly are random coincidences, and some are not really coincidences at all, but just seem so because we assign meaning to the outcome.

As Richard Feynman apparently said at a lecture to demonstrate the fallacy of this type of automatic human thinking:
“You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won't believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!”

I think we can all read that and immediately think of instances where we have mistaken randomness for coincidence, or coincidence for meaning.

Here is another little snippet on coincidences, from the Seinfeld episode 'The Statue'. You may remember, Jerry hired a cleaner, Ray, who he suspected of stealing a figurine from his home, when he saw the same figurine in Ray's apartment.  In this scene Elaine and Ray's girlfriend Rava are arguing about it.

ELAINE: Well, I mean, he was in the apartment, and then it's gone and it's in your apartment.
RAVA: Maybe you think we're in cahoots.
ELAINE: No, no... but it is quite a coincidence.
RAVA: Yes, that's all, a coincidence!
ELAINE: A BIG coincidence.
RAVA: Not a big coincidence. A coincidence!
ELAINE: No, that's a big coincidence.
RAVA: That's what a coincidence is! There are no small coincidences and big coincidences! There are just coincidences!

Yes, there are. And they will always fascinate us.

How about you? Succumbed to any good logical fallacies lately?


  1. There is no such thing as a coincidence. Just the way it is. They're always there for a reason.

  2. I remember reading these lists of coincidences before and finding them fascinating. I agree that it's impossible for most of us to accept that things may not happen for a reason - I personally find it addictive to consider and look for connections in seemingly random events. Obviously it's my evolutionary nature coming to the fore!!!



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