While we can all agree coincidences have fascinated scholars and lay people alike, what they mean divides us into one of two camps: skeptics or believers. A believer thinks that coincidences are evidence of mysterious, hidden and possible paranormal causes. A skeptic will put coincidences down to statistical quirks that are more common than we tend to think.
As cognitive psychologists Mark Johansen at Cardiff University in the U.K. and I propose a third point of view, which we call the rationalist way. This position is discussed in my book Future-Minded (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2014), in which I argue that coincidences are the product of rational cognitive processes, and are an unavoidable result of our mind searching for causality in reality. Before discussing the details of this idea, let’s consider some of the general findings associated with research on coincidences.
What we know from research on coincidences is that the frequency of experiencing coincidences isn’t predicted by gender, age, occupation or level of education. This means that all of us have actually experienced many coincidences in our lives and will continue to experience them as we proceed through life.
Although experiencing frequent coincidences isn’t restricted to any particular group, the extent to which a person sees meaning in such events does vary by education level. For instance, Susan Jane Blackmore at the University of Plymouth and her colleagues have shown that people who tend to hold strong beliefs in the paranormal also tend not to be good at tests of probabilistic reasoning, or generating and spotting randomness in series of numbers. And a 2014 study by Robert Brotherton at Goldsmiths University of London and Christopher French at Goldsmiths University of London shows that people who hold strong beliefs in conspiracy theories tend to make more errors in understanding statistical concepts.
These individuals are thus more likely to see meaning in quirky rare events, because they do not realize that the laws of mathematics could predict their occurrance. Such evaluations of coincidences are therefore often considered irrational, a view advanced by mathematician David Hand in his book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen Every Day (Macmillan, February 2014).
But are they really irrational? Perhaps there is a good psychological explanation for both evaluating coincidences and experiencing them in the first place. Johansen and I suggest that coincidences reveal fundamental aspects about the way in which we look for causality in the world.
When we recognize a pattern of events, particularly if it is rare, we tend to think, “huh, what caused that?” Take for example the experience of thinking about a long lost friend and soon afterwards, bumping into that person on the street. When we thought about and then saw our friend, we seek an explanation for the pattern because it has all the signature features that trigger our search for a cause. Johansen and I argue that the essential ingredients that make some patterns stand out as possible coincidences is that they are repeating events that we judge as having aspects in common, as well as happening close in time or space, or both, and are novel, and seemingly rare.
Combined, these elements trigger us to look for an explanation. When we can’t think of anything more plausible to account for the pattern other than chance, then we class it as a coincidence. In the case of our long lost friend, we might first think that fate (or perhaps divine intervention) brought us back together. We may then decide, however, that fate is actually even less plausible as an explanation than the idea that the two events simply occurred by chance.
Whatever the range of explanations, the detection of such events which we treat as coincidences is critical, as it is an example of our pattern recognition abilities. If combinations of events repeat in a pattern, then we can use that pattern to determine the likelihood of the events recurring, when and where these events might take place, and also the chances of similar events happening in the future. Experiencing coincidences is therefore not a reflection of an irrational mind. By contrast, it reveals a rational process of searching for repetition, evaluating patterns and judging them against chance.
Searching for patterns is essential to our cognition and survival, and the cost of not having this ability far out weights the false paths we take when we see patterns that aren’t there. If we observe a pattern then we have detected a regularity in the world, and a regularity is likely to have a causal basis. We can use this regularity to make a prediction, and if we can predict, we can control future events more reliably–to our great advantage.
Brotherton, R., & French, C. C. (2014). Belief in Conspiracy Theories and Susceptibility to the Conjunction Fallacy. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 28: 238-248. DOI: 10.1002/acp.2995
Hand, D. J. (2014). The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. Macmillan.
Osman, M. (2014). Future-minded: The psychology of Agency and Control. Palgrave-MacMillan