The Science Behind Some Coincidences

Coincidences happen everyday and moreover, a day without anything unusual happening is an unusual day in itself. So why do coincidences occur at all and do they have some kind of special message? In this article, I’m going to explore the science behind coincidences and also talk about a couple of examples.

For starters, there are a couple of ways of looking at coincidences. A mathematician will tell you it’s all about probability and how every strange event always has a chance of happening. A psychologist will bring in ideas of Pareidolia and Synchronicity (we’ll discuss these in a bit) among other things. And if you’re relatively more spiritual, you’ll believe that coincidences are actually messages from the Universe (whatever that means).

If you think of a coincidence in mathematical terms, it really is rather simple. Take, the following incident, for example:

Coincidence #1: A student and professor were both to attend a conference in a different city but since they had different destinations from there, they booked the tickets separately. On boarding the flight, they were surprised to find themselves seated next to each other. They were convinced it was a coincidence. But let’s look at this a little differently:

Explanation: All 747’s roughly seat around 450 passengers which means the chances of them being seated next to each other is 1 in 450. But they had booked tickets in the same class. There were also a few isolation seats but in most cases, you had to sit next to another passenger. Next, some passengers fly in groups of 2s and 3s or more. So the chances of two single passengers sitting next to each other has relatively increased. If you take ALL of this into account, the chances aren’t really 1 in 450 anymore, it’s dramatically decreased. So in the end, it isn’t so much as a coincidence anymore.

Coincidence #2: An engaged couple are going through their childhood albums when the woman discovers a picture of herself at Disneyland from twenty years go. Her soon-to-be husband, on closer inspection, discovers his father in the picture, pushing a stroller forward with him in it!

Destiny at Disney World: Alex Voutsinas, pictured in the pushchair in the rear of the photo, and his future wife Donna, front right, were shocked to realise their paths crossed as toddlers

Explanation: Both of them were five years old when this picture was taken. And they both possibly visited Disneyland in the holiday season or rather, the peak season. Considering the average number of five-year olds who visit Disneyland every year and in the peak season, two of them could easily be in the same picture. But the interesting part is how they were getting married twenty years later. While even I’d secretly like to believe that this was a match made in Disneyland, the chances of them meeting later in life do exist. The chances are outrageous, yes but they are chances nonetheless. From a mathematician’s perspective, any chance is good enough.

Now, if we were to think about this from a psychologist’s point of view, we would be met with explanations based on how the human brain works.

Coincidence #3: This is a satellite image of the Cydonia region on surface of Mars. ‘Face on Mars’ as the image is dubbed, convinced many of extraterrestrial lifeforms being present on Mars. And for those who knew better and said it was just a rock that looks like a face, they thought it was a coincidence.

Explanation: Here comes in the concept of Pareidolia. Pareidolia is basically a psychological phenomenon that convinces us to see patterns and recognize shapes everywhere. It’s the way the human brain works. So more than this being a coincidence or evidence of the existence of Martians, it’s simply our mind playing tricks on us.

Some more examples of Pareidolia: 

Space Pareidolia – Carina Nebula: This particular image has been featured in more memes than I can count.

Image result for examples of pareidolia

The Door: Image result for examples of pareidolia

Unsettling Trees: Found this image on Reddit (obviously)

Image result for examples of pareidolia

Coincidence #4: In the 1950s, Eric W Smith, who lived in Sheffield, England was in the habit of collecting horse manure for his tomato plants from the woods behind the house. One day he saw another man doing the same. When he sat down on a bench to rest, the other man did the same. Eric introduced himself, saying his name was Smith. “So’s mine,” said the other man. So Eric expanded: “Eric Smith.” By then it was obvious that a strange coincidence was occurring: “And so is mine,” said the other man. “Eric W Smith,” said Eric. “Yes,” said the other man. On further discussion, they realized that the W in one’s name was for Walter and the other was Wales but they overlook this tiny difference and decided the entire encounter was a big coincidence.

Explanation: One thing we realize is that Smith is the most common surname in the UK, with around 700,000 people sharing it – that’s about 1 in 100. The name ‘Eric’ isn’t so uncommon either. ‘The Law of Near Enough’ of The Improbability Principle basically states that the human mind works in such a way that we tend to overlook tiny details in an attempt to point out similarities. In this case, we overlooked their middle names and the fact that collecting manure and sitting down are really normal human activities.

Coincidence #5: The French writer Deschamps claims in his memoirs that, in 1805, he was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger named Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, the writer encountered plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant and wanted to order some, but the waiter told him that the last dish had already been served to another customer, who turned out to be de Fontgibu. Many years later, in 1832, Deschamps was at a dinner and once again ordered plum pudding. He recalled the earlier incident and told his friends that only de Fontgibu was missing to make the setting complete – and in the same instant, de Fontgibu entered the room.

Explanation: This particular coincidence or rather, series of coincidences, perfectly describes the concept on Synchronicity, an idea proposed by Carl Jung. Synchronicity basically refers to the phenomenon of meaningful coincidences happening with no casual relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. His hypothesis was met with an incredible amount of criticism, people labelled it as ‘pseudoscience’ and even referred to it as a philosophical concept.

Well, there you have it. Here are some coincidences and the possible explanations of them. I didn’t touch the subject of spirituality here because personally, I refuse to believe that a coincidence has some kind of upper world meaning or something of the sort. However, if you really are interested in it, I suggest you read this post by Deepak Chopra here.

I hope this pretty long post (kudos to you if you’re still reading this) has helped, feedback would be great!

 

References:


1. http://www.sciencefocus.com/qa/why-do-coincidences-occur
2. https://understandinguncertainty.org/node/130
3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1285238/Engaged-couple-discover-paths-crossed-Disney-World-toddlers.html
4. http://improbability-principle.com/

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