July 24, 2004 5:38 AM   Subscribe

This is a bit of a ChatFilter question but I'm curious about any coincidences you (or people you know) have experienced - the more unbelievable, the better. I'm also curious about any theories you may have about "coincidence". I know the dictionary definition but what is coincidence really? Do you think it's something mystical or something that's inevitable with the number of events that happen every second of every day? Here's a hypothetical but typical example: "I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen for years while travelling to New York. Not only did we find meet in a city of millions, but it turns out we both married women named Sara. Can you believe it?"
posted by Jaybo to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
even more amazing, there's just been a thread on mefi about this. what are the odds of that?

i'm sure you and troutfishing have a lot to talk about...
posted by andrew cooke at 5:59 AM on July 24, 2004

Dawkins has some great material on the nature of coincidence in Unweaving the Rainbow.
posted by majick at 6:42 AM on July 24, 2004

I really enjoyed Innumeracy's discussion of coincidences, even if the title is slightly insulting.
posted by revgeorge at 7:01 AM on July 24, 2004

Ok, I've got one.

This past week I had been exchanging emails with the author of an article on RSS and syndication. These were all sent using my real name, and from my personal email address. This author had a fairly unique name.

One morning, I sent an email to him, and went to work.

Later that day, at work, I posted some job openings to Craig's List, using a protected version of my work email address. A few hours later, after the openings were accepted, one of the first resumes to show up was from the author that I had just mailed earlier that day!

We don't live or work in the same cities, the job was entirely unrelated to our email discussion, and in no way did I drop any hints that there would be a job posting.

Out of the billions of people who could have emailed in a resume, how did he happen to be one of the 30 who actually did?

This, to me, was a fairly low-probability coincidence.
posted by jeffbarr at 7:25 AM on July 24, 2004

Can they really be called coincidences when they are so common that they happen to everyone?
posted by rushmc at 8:18 AM on July 24, 2004

What your example ignores is how many times you visit a place and don't run into someone you know - or the times you are on 57th St. and your best friend from elementary school walks by on 56th and you don't meet.

We all experience those weird confluences - I've got some doozies - but it's just the human need to see patterns in the chaos.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:34 AM on July 24, 2004

I have too odd death-related coincidences to relate:

When I first started working a job in ISP tech support many years ago, we had a very problematic custome who ... well, he was just really really old. He'd start every phone call with "The. In. Ter. Net. Does. Nt. Work." It took forever to help him, and it was most frustrating, trying the customer service skills of everyone with whom he spoke.

One day, during an hour-long call with him, I muted my headset and began banging my head against my screen saying, "Please, just die, just die, just die, just die."

Scanning the obits several days later (a habit I picked up at a very young age, thank you AIDS) I saw his name. I felt awful and more than a little spooked.
Several years ago, I jokingly told a friend that the death of Katherine Hepburn would be a sign of the coming Apocalypse (as Terence and Philip's arrest was in the South Park movie).

Last summer, I e-mailed the same friend after a particularly harrowing day at both work and home saying "If Kate turns up dead, I'm running for the hills."

She died the next day.
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:47 AM on July 24, 2004

...two odd...
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:48 AM on July 24, 2004

The first time I read Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson I got very caught up in all the stuff about 23 being a special number. I knew there was a NY Times magazine on the coffee table in the next room, so I decided to check what was on page 23. Imagine my surprise when I walked over to the table, only to find that the magazine was already open to page 23. This is interesting, but ultimately meaningless.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:56 AM on July 24, 2004

This is something I really enjoy thinking about, but I should make the disclaimer that I'm an atheist/skeptic. So, I don't believe coincidences are indicative of anything mystical. I believe they are a property of statistics. Some erroneous (but natural) assumptions of the human mind make them seem like magic.

Since it's POSSIBLE to account for coincidences without resorting to mysticism, even a religious or superstitious person (if he's thought things through) should be open to the possibility that a specific coincidence may not have mystical causes. For instance, most people -- religious or otherwise -- believe that it's natural that thrown dice will generally yield different numbers on each throw, but sometimes one will get a run of sixes. Most people won't invoke a deity just because they threw three sixes in a row.

One way to think about coincidences is to break your day down into discrete events. An "event" can be anything you want it to be, but in general each event should be "one thing that happens to you." So brushing your teeth is an event, eating a hamburger is an event, and running into your friend Fred is an event.

How many events (on average) happen to you in a single day? I've never counted, but let's say it's 1000. This means 365,000 per year. Using just pure chance -- not a deity or magic -- what would be the chance that some of these events WOULDN'T come in pairs? It's statistically very unlikely. So we should expect (even though we don't) that every once in a while, I'm going to be whistling "Row Row Row Your Boat" and a complete stranger will walk by whistling the same thing. The universe would be a really strange place if this DIDN'T happen now and again.

Added to this, the human mind naturally likes to group similar events together. So it probably wouldn't even take another whistler to make me feel like something extraordinary had occurred. If I'm whistling "Row Row Row Your Boat," and someone walks by with an image of a boat on his T-shirt, it's going to feel magical to me.

My brain won't focus on the fact that there were more differences between the two events than similarities (the person wasn't singing, I'm not wearing a boat T-shirt, etc.) My brain also won't focus on the fact that I whistle quite often and I know a finite number of songs. Nor will it focus on the fact that there are a relatively small (giving the number of people I pass every day) number of common images that I'm likely to see on T-shirts. Again, it would be very strange if these sorts of coincidences never happened. But it FEELS like it's strange when they DO happen.

This is (a) because most of the time they DON'T happen, so we're not expecting them (we're surprised by them), and (b) because our brains are natural categorizers. So we're going to notice similar events and not notice (the thousands of) non-similar events.

It's also instructive to think about poker hands. It's highly unlikely that in any given hand you'll get a straight flush (five consecutive cards, all of the same suite, like 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of hearts). Of all the possible combinations of five cards (each of which can be one of 52 possibilities), you will almost always get something other than a straight flush.

But when we take into account all the poker games being played all over the world, SOMEONE is going to get a straight flush. And that person is going to feel like something very special and magical has happened to him. But statistically it HAS to happen to someone.

Only one person can win the lottery each time it's played. But if we keep playing lotteries for long enough into the future, eventually two next-door neighbors will both win million-dollar lotteries. It will seem magical, but it will just be a natural statistical occurrence.

Besides the fact that our brains don't expect these natural events to happen, I also think we think of them as magical because that gives us special status. It strokes our egos more to think, "I won the lottery because God listened to my prayers," then to think SOMEBODY had to win it and I just happened to get lucky.
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

One afternoon when I was living in Brooklyn, I was walking home from the subway (M train, Prospect Avenue stop; about 3 blocks from my apartment) on my usual route when I saw a guy struggling to get a large-ish desk into the front door of an apartment building. I wouldn't ordinarily stop to help a stranger (I have some social anxiety issues), but I did. I said, "You need some help with that?" He looked up and started to say that he didn't need any help, thanks. Instead, we both froze and stared at each other until I said his name and he said mine. We had gone to school together from about 7th grade through high school in a smallish Oregon town. We weren't particular friends back then (though I had a huge platonic crush on him in high school--you know, when you really want someone to be your friend?) or anything, but our moms know each other, we were both on the school and local club swim teams, we were both kind of weird (though he had the charisma to pull it off, and I didn't), etc.
We exchanged phone numbers and all that, but neither of us ever called the other (see previous parenthetical note re: social anxiety issues). I lived there for another year, walked that way to/from the train about twice a day, and never saw him again.
posted by willpie at 10:54 AM on July 24, 2004

My goal here isn't to disprove everyone's mystical experiences, but I do want to point out something about willpie's. I've lived in New York for about six years, and this sort of event happens to me from time-to-time (I run into someone I haven't seen for years -- someone I met back before either of us lived in NYC.)

If you think about it, it's not that unlikely (even though it feels amazing.)

When you walk in a big city, you pass hundreds and hundreds of people each day. Many people, from all over the world, move to New York. You knew many people growing up, and there's a pretty large chance that more than one of them moved to New York. Assuming you and some of these other people live in the city for many years, the chances are pretty great that eventually you will run into each other.

It's funny that willpie noted that this person wasn't a best friend. It would be MORE of an amazing coincidence if it HAD been willpie's best friend or next door neighbor from Oregon. But it was a pretty random person from willpie's childhood.

Note: most tourists who come to NYC go to a small set of places, so if you're walking through Times Square or visiting the Natural History museum you are even more likely to run into someone from your past.

I ran into people from my past in both those places (once it WAS a childhood next-door neighbor), but it's also happened to me on random, unimportant streets.
posted by grumblebee at 11:04 AM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

grumblebee - It wasn't the running into him so much that made it stand out to me (god knows people run into each other in New York), it was really that he lived two blocks from me in a not-super-residential part of Brooklyn.
I'm still not sure what was odder, though: the fact that we did run into each other, or the fact that we didn't run into each other more than once.
One of the things that struck me when I was living in New York was the frequency with which you see people who you think--just for a second--might be someone you know, but aren't. Then there's the time I saw a guy who looked *just like* me. That was weird.
posted by willpie at 11:28 AM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

While I don't think coincidences need to be debunked or proven "mystical" ... I think they make excellent storytelling devices, as evidenced by many people's experiences related here thus far. We love to have stories told to us, and those that send a shiver up our spines or make us have a wtf? moment are some of the most popular. Knowing this comes from a need to find patterns in chaos or somesuch ruins the effect yo!
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:02 PM on July 24, 2004

While I don't think coincidences need to be debunked or proven "mystical" ... I think they make excellent storytelling devices

For an example, read any story by Charles Dickens.

I think one of the differences between real life and fiction is that in real life, the universe may or my not have a creator (or it may or may not be ordered). Whereas fiction ALWAYS has a creator (the author). Since the authors are humans and humans like order, human stories tend to be ordered.

We complain when an author throws too many chaotic events into his story ("that's gratuitous!", "I don't see what that has to do with the rest of the storu!")

But in real life (those of us who don't believe in a creator -- or an active creator) are more tolerant of chaos ("sometimes life is unfair", "just one of those meaningless conversations...").
posted by grumblebee at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2004


Or a manipulative child?
posted by grumblebee at 12:29 PM on July 24, 2004

it's just the human need to see patterns in the chaos.

I think it's more accurate to say these *are* patterns in the chaos, and WolfDaddy's on the right track -- what humans do is pick out these patterns (because they're real) and experience them and make meaning out of them.

The reductionist view -- this is "just" statistics -- seems odd to me. There's a lot of wonderous stuff going on in the universe as a result of just physics and chemistry. You can look at people as just sculptures of moving meat and blood, large animated slabs of chemistry, if you want to, and to some degree it's true. But obviously this misses a whole level of reality which is pressingly present and important, not to mention that it seems like a miracle in itself sometimes that complex systems such bodies work at all. Whether or not you believe in a creator or evolution or neither or both, life the universe and everything are pretty freakin' cool. As is the fact that something exists instead of nothing, that consciousness exists, that watermelon (which is practically naturally occuring ice cream) grows, that people survive freeways, etc.

In a sense, I think you could even validate the idea that there's a mysterious force at work with the coincidences -- probability is mysterious. We understand some of its logic to a point, but it can get weird and surprising fast (see the Monty Hall problem for even a trivial example).
posted by weston at 12:47 PM on July 24, 2004

The reductionist view -- this is "just" statistics -- seems odd to me.

I agree. To go back to my trivial poker example, a straight flush may be "just" a statistical anamoly, but that statistical anomoly could win you a lot of money. We give meaning to a straight flush (the fact that certain selections of cards form a pattern) by inventing a game in which it's important.

But this importance is distinct from the idea that because I got a straight flush, I am important (or magically lucky or blessed by the gods).
posted by grumblebee at 1:05 PM on July 24, 2004

We understand some of its logic to a point, but it can get weird and surprising fast.

I wonder why it's hard for the human mind to grasp probability. It's almost never intuitive.

Maybe it's because probability means something might or might not happen. We don't usually think that way, because that makes it hard to plan. If I think, "Julie may or may not come over tonight," it's hard for me to plan whether or not to cook dinner. If I think, "there's a 90% chance Julie will come over tonight," then I will go ahead and cook dinner.

Which means that my behavior at 90% will be exactly the same as if the probablity is 100%. So thinking about that 10% chance that she won't come over is a waste of time.

I think this is why coincidences are so surprising. On an intellectual level, we know that it's POSSIBLE that I might run into childhood friend while visiting Alaska. But the possibility seems so small, that it FEELS like it's impossible. So when it happens (because it IS possible), I'm surprised.

We're not good at keeping all of our options open.
posted by grumblebee at 1:11 PM on July 24, 2004

Coincidence is just a matter of where you put your attention. How many people have you met in NY who didn't go to grade school with you? And did each of those experiences drive you to despair at how anonymous and isolating the world is? No. So why flip out at the mystical ya-ya of the universe when you finally run into one person you know?

Sure, if you take all of us, poll for our weirdest tales, and list them all here, it seems to start to form a pattern. But you can't posit anything about the "universe" in general using such a highly-distilled data set.
posted by scarabic at 1:51 PM on July 24, 2004

I think it's a mistake to read too much into coincidence -- but it's also a mistake to discount them. Look, I'm as non-mystic as you can get. I agree that coincidences tell us nothing about the physical universe. They are just random events that we (wrongly) feel are special.

But we DO feel they are special. So while they may tell us nothing about the physical universe, they tell us a lot about US. For instance, they tell us something about how we'll react if the second movement of a symphony echos certain themes from the first movement. If we didn't react to patterns, we wouldn't enjoy music.
posted by grumblebee at 2:13 PM on July 24, 2004

While I do have weird coincidence stories like anyone else, what seems strange to me is that I've never run into anyone from my childhood. I hear these stories all the time about seeing someone in New York or meeting in a chatroom, but it has never happend in my life - that's what I think is weird. Perhaps someday I recieve 35 years of delayed coincidence. Perhaps I'll walk onto a plane that is populated entirely by figures of my past.

On second thought that'd be too damn creepy, wouldn't it.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:14 PM on July 24, 2004 [2 favorites]

One recent coincidence story:

I was high and driving to Target. As I pulled in the parking lot I thought about a woman I knew, whom I'd been in college with, and thought "Hey, I haven't seen her in a while. Wonder what she's up to these days." (It had been a couple of months since I'd seen her last.)

As soon as I walked into the store I saw her standing at one of the checkout lanes.

I don't know what it means. Personal connection? Expanded consciousness? Stoner-dom? I'm working on it.
posted by nath at 2:23 PM on July 24, 2004

Elwoodwiles, to extend the probability idea to the point of nausia, I'd say that, statistically, of all the people in the world who experience a certain kind of coincidence, there have to be some who never (or rarely) experience it.

There also have to be some who experience it a lot.

And there have to be those rare few who have the equivalent of a straight flush. So you MIGHT have your creepy airplane experience yet.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on July 24, 2004

Nath, I wonder if SHE was high too.

And did you have the same items in your shopping cart? Were you wearing the same clothing?

If so, forget everything I've said about statistics. There IS a God!
posted by grumblebee at 2:27 PM on July 24, 2004

"I was high and driving to Target" is a great first line of a short story.

(Not to encourage stoned driving.)
posted by lisa g at 2:47 PM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine virtually always thinks or dreams about someone he used to know within a day of meeting them. He writes it off as being fantasy-prone plus heavy on coincidences, being rational minded, but it can be pretty unsettling sometimes.
posted by abcde at 3:53 PM on July 24, 2004

What your example ignores is how many times you visit a place and don't run into someone you know - or the times you are on 57th St. and your best friend from elementary school walks by on 56th and you don't meet.

Cunninglinguist pegs something which I've always found unsettling. Based on those times that I have run into someone, an encounter that ended up being unsettling and mysterious, how many more times did I *just* miss running into someone because, say, they left the shop 5 minutes before I arrived. We're swimming in a sea that is thicker with possibilities than anything else.
posted by vacapinta at 8:38 PM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

I like coincidences quite a bit, mostly the very notion of the unexpected shared experience. Lots of artists and writers explore this -- notably Paul Auster and Sophie Calle, off the top of my head. It does provide for excellent storytelling.
posted by judith at 11:17 PM on July 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

Probability distribution is the language of the universe that only a very few of us have barely begun to strain to hear (and almost none with any success - certainly not I).
posted by scarabic at 4:45 AM on July 25, 2004

This thread has made in interested in creating a coincidence-simulator program. I would like to create something that illustrates the chances of meeting a childhood friend in a big city like New York.

What variables should the program work with? How about...

c = number of childhood acquaintances.

n = average number of people noticed in NYC each day.

y = number of years you live in NYC.

m = number of childhood friends who move to NYC during the time you live there.

f = frequency of random visits to NYC by childhood friends

l = length of random visits to NYC by childhood friends

t = number of days per year you tend to hang out in touristy locations.

I think these values should be alterable by the end-user, but what are good default values?

Are there any important variables that I'm missing?
posted by grumblebee at 7:02 AM on July 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Are there any important variables that I'm missing?
Any real knowledge.
posted by JohnR at 9:20 AM on July 25, 2004

posted by grumblebee at 9:50 AM on July 25, 2004

I got one. A couple of years ago, I went to a friends wedding on Orcas Island in the San Juans. Coming home, we had a two hour wait for the ferry. It was a nice day, so a bunch of us sat on the hill overlooking the terminal and enjoyed the shade and each others company.
My roommate and I took some pictures while we chillin, there were other people around us, talking quietly and hanging out. When we got back, he posted them on his picture site and I wrote a entry on my blog about the weekend with a link. Turned out that a guy that I didn't know, who occasionally read my blog was sitting behind us and wound up in one of the pictures. I got an email from him a few days later.
posted by black8 at 3:39 AM on July 26, 2004

I find that the more I travel, the more I run into people from my past.

It is my contention that the amount of people that travel are a relatively small group so the more you travel, the chances of running into someone you know increases.
posted by Dagobert at 4:25 AM on July 26, 2004

In dating years, I ran into all sorts of coincidences that really just pointed out a certain consistency. I met several women via personal ads and Nothing in the ads talked about where I lived or people I’d known. Woman #1 had dated the ex-boyfriend of a woman I’d just broken up with, had even been in the other woman’s house, and lived about 4 blocks away from me. The next woman’s ex-husband lived on the same block as woman #1, had many mutual friends with her, and lived about a block away from me. Woman #3 had hosted the happy hour at which my ex-wife met her new husband-to-be, and lived directly across the street from me. These were all odd coincidences, but they make sense when you think about the type of person who lives in my neighborhood, and the type of woman that I’m attracted to.

The weirdest thing that’s happened to me surrounded the death of my grad school advisor. At his funeral, I learned that he was a bluebird enthusiast. I had a hard time adjusting to his absence, and my studies suffered for it. Two years later, I finally passed my PhD oral exams. I got up very early the next day, and there was a bluebird sitting outside my window, the only one I ever saw at that house. In January.

So, OK, do I believe that my dead advisor manifested himself as a bird and came to congratulate me? Well, no, not really. On a rational level, I know it was just a coincidence. But I literally almost fainted that morning, and I still get chills when I think about it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:49 AM on July 26, 2004

It also occurs to me that I look for coincidences, because I find them interesting. I ask people about their past, trying to find intersections. And I look for people I know wherever I go, because I think it’s neat. I don’t think everyone does that. If I find out someone’s from my (large) hometown, I immediately ask them where they went to high school, because I think it’d be cool if we went to the same one; that’s paid off several times.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:53 AM on July 26, 2004

...The next woman’s ex-husband lived on the same block as woman #1, had many mutual friends with her, and lived about a block away from me. Woman #3 had hosted the happy hour at which my ex-wife met her new husband-to-be, and lived directly across the street from me. These were all odd coincidences, but they make sense when you think about the type of person who lives in my neighborhood, and the type of woman that I’m attracted to.</snip>

The thing I find interesting about coincidences is how close we are to people like ourselves.

The people that you grew up with and went to elementary school with, the people who were your friends, or your neighbors -- those people have a great many similarities to you. They're probably of the same race, and the same socio-economic bracket. They also share values and goals. So if you wind up in New York City, it's much more likely that your friends (and neighbors) will wind up in New York City. Because that neighborhood raised children who all had mom's who thought it good to wind up there.

I'm not trying to be simplistic or trying troll, just exploring a thought that I'm still formulating. I think that if you go to law school, or know a lot of people who go to law school, then you're much more likely to run into the kids from your hometown who went to law school. Which seems like a "duh" statement, but I think actually says a lot about the structure of social bonds.
posted by zpousman at 3:14 PM on July 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Coincidence one: My woman and I spent two weeks in a rural Mexican town, where she worked at a clinic. During the time we were there, we met three other doctors/medical students from other parts of the USA. Upon discussing acquaintances we figured out that we were all within about seven degrees of separation.

Coincidence two: She received an email from another New Yorker via her Suicidegirls account. When she looked at his profile, she recognized him as being our next-door neighbor from when we lived in San Francisco two years ago. She was not identifiable in her profile picture, so his emailing her was a very surprising coincidence. (She emailed him back, blowing his mind, and we're all friends now.)
posted by skryche at 2:27 PM on July 29, 2004

« Older Can good photography make me beautiful?   |   Moveable Type Templates? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.