A weird thing happened when professor, statistician, and author David Hand released his book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. A man named John Ironmonger reached out to him about a book he had written himself.
“Called Coincidence, it featured a London-based academic who was an expert on coincidences and whose birthday was June 30, the same as mine,” says Hand.
Hand, a professor of mathematics at Imperial College in London, certainly seems to fit the profile of the protagonist, but what are the odds that Ironmonger created this character, who bears distinctly similar features as Hand, out of his own mind without knowing that Hand even existed? Is it possible that it was just a coincidence, or are there other factors at play here?
Coincidences, like this one, happen all the time. They probably even happen to you. But why do they occur and what is their meaning? The answer is up to you.
Is that a coincidence you’re wearing, or did you just set this up?
Picture this: You’ve had someone on your mind lately that you haven’t seen in a while. And as you’re thinking more and more about this person, you just happen to run into them. Is this a coincidence or just a random situation that doesn’t have any meaning?
“Rare events do happen, but for a rare event to be a coincidence, we need to regard it as meaningful in some way,” says Hand. He provides an example: In a series of 10 tosses of a fair coin, he says that the patterns HHTHTTTHTH and HHHHHHHHHH (“H” meaning “heads” and “T” meaning “tails”) have exactly the same tiny probability—about 1 in 1000—of occurring, but only the second would be regarded as a coincidence.
In other words, if it happens once, that’s pretty cool, but if it happens again, well, now you’ve got a meaningful coincidence on your hands. And what is a “meaningful coincidence?”
According to Bernard Beitman, MD, author of Connecting With Coincidence, a meaningful coincidence is when two things that have no relation to one another are connected by some sort of shared meaning. “The coincidence often hints at an explanation not accepted by conventional science.”
One of the most common coincidences, says Beitman, also known as “Dr. Coincidence,” are those that connect a mental event with an environmental event, such as when you’re thinking about someone and then see them.
“These mind-environment coincidences happen regularly,” Beitman says. “Whether the person notices is the answer to the question of whether they happen or not.”
Even author Mark Twain was known to talk about these types of coincidences. He once stated that he had planned to write a friend of his a few times, but just never got around to it. Once he did, however, he knew that his friend would write him as well. It wasn’t because he knew that Twain had written him, but simply because Twain had written, because “It always happens so,” he would say.
Coincidence, pattern, or both?
When it comes down to it, coincidences are essentially patterns that people see in events that happen around them. For example, an occurrence in your everyday life may not be significant to you until you see the same situation pop up more often. Detecting this pattern may convince you that you’re experiencing a coincidence of some sort.
But why are some so quick to see these patterns, and what’s the point of detecting them? Turns out, it’s all about comforting and preparing yourself.
“We are pattern-seeking creatures so that we can make sense out of what is happening to us and be better able to predict and control the future,” says Beitman.
In other words, we pay attention to these patterns so that we can prepare ourselves for if and when it happens again, “which has enabled us to avoid danger and hence survive for longer,” says Hand.
But sometimes, we are just fooling ourselves, says Sir David Spiegelhalter, British statistician and Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.
“There’s a Greek word ‘apophenia‘, meaning the urge to make patterns when none really exist,” he says. “So, we tell ourselves stories to try and make sense of a world of unavoidable unpredictability.”
Coincidences can also create fear, says Hand, as they can mislead us into believing in superstitions. For example, you may be afraid to participate in certain situations because you’ve only experienced negative effects from them in the past.
If a coincidence occurs and no one notices, did it really happen?
The thing about coincidences is, they happen all the time. And they happen to some people more than others. But are coincidences more commonplace in the lives of some, or do they just notice them more than others?
“People who are more outgoing, meet lots of others, and expose themselves to new experiences (religious or not) are more likely to experience coincidences—simply because they have more opportunities to do so,” says Hand. “They are taking advantage of the law of truly large numbers, which says that if you give something with a small probability enough opportunities to happen, it is almost certain to happen.”
People who are religious, spiritual, and self-referential also experience coincidences more often than those who aren’t, says Beitman. He also believes that highly intuitive people and those searching for the meaning of life are more susceptible to experiencing coincidences.
People who aren’t outgoing or observant can be a part of coincidences all the time but may simply not be aware of them.
“Coincidences never happen to me at all, because I never notice anything,” Spiegelhalter said in an interview with The Atlantic. “I never talk to anybody on trains. If I’m with a stranger, I don’t try to find a connection with them because I’m English.”
This means, according to Spiegelhalter, that because he isn’t paying attention, he doesn’t find the coincidences. However, if he was more observant and didn’t keep to himself, he may notice the coincidences or make more connections. But because he is English, and therefore, keeps to himself more than Americans, for instance, he isn’t aware of the coincidences, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
Is there any other explanation?
It is luck that the universe creates scenarios that occur repeatedly, or is there a more scientific explanation for what we see as coincidences? The answer depends on you, and how you want to experience it.
For Spiegelhalter, it’s all about how we perceive it.
“Stuff just happens,” he says. “It’s the stories we tell ourselves that give events meaning.”
One of his favorite coincidences is the story of the Huntrodds. Not only did husband and wife Francis and Mary Huntrodds share the same last name, they also shared three significant life events.
The couple passed away within five hours of another on Sept. 19, 1680. And while this is kind of romantic (in a creepy way) and maybe not all that profound, what is quite significant is the date: It was their joint 80th birthday. They were both born on Sept. 19, 1600, and 80 years later, both passed away on their birthdays. They were also married on September 19, as well.
Though this seems like a standard issue coincidence that is quite fascinating, Spiegelhalter still isn’t convinced.
As far as their shared date of their passing, he suggests a shared illness “so there was a reason for the match.”
Beitman, on the other hand, is a firm believer in the power of coincidences. His favorite story is one that involves listening to your own gut.
In this tale, a brother feels compelled to get in his car and drive to a lake in a forest in which he had never been. Upon his arrival, he finds his 17-year-old sister in the parking lot, armed with their father’s shotgun and ready to take her life.
“He didn’t have any idea why he got into his car; he didn’t know where he was driving, or why he was going there,” Beitman says. “By following his intuition, he saved her life.”
Situations like this often beg the question of divine intervention. Why did the brother feel such a strong inclination to drive somewhere he had never been before for reasons he wasn’t sure? Did the universe set up these events in order to prevent something terrible from happening, or was it just luck?
“The two most popular explanations are God and probability,” says Beitman. “My research shows that all coincidence cannot be explained by the same reason. Some are quite mysterious. Others are best understood by probability. Many are the result of our own actions, which includes luck. We have unrecognized capacities like telepathy and clairvoyance which contribute to our ability to create coincidences for ourselves. “
So whether you are aware of coincidences around you, or oblivious to most of it, you have to admit it’s a cool thing when you happen to discover one. And even if the significant event was a result of your own actions, it doesn’t mean the coincidence is any less profound.
“Although the occurrence of coincidences can be explained by solid mathematics and the natural human tendency to see patterns—so we should expect to see them—this should not detract from the sense of wonder we experience when a coincidence occurs,” Hand says. “Just because we understand the physics behind the rainbow and the Aurora Borealis does not make them any less amazing.”