Coincidences

Coincidences fascinate us and strike us as more significant than they actually are. For instance, in the small seminary where I teach, which has but five faculty, two of them, myself and our adjunct professor, Dr. Jim West, share the same wedding anniversary. And not just the same day, June 25, but also the same year, 1983. Almost four years ago, in 2008, I had a conversation with him about the fact that my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was approaching and then he said “oh, this will be my twenty-fourth then.”

Then he paused, muttered, “oh shoot” (or something to that effect) and said, “Wait—you got married in 1983, right?”

I nodded.

“Oh shoot!” he said again. “I thought I had a year left before it was 25 years.”

“Good we had this little conversation, then,” I smiled.

“Indeed!”

As startling as coincidences are, and as much as we notice them, they are in fact statistically common. Rather than being surprised, we should expect them. Take birthdays as an example. In any random selection of twenty-three people, there is a fifty percent chance that two of them will have a birthday in common. Once the number in the group goes up to forty-one, the odds of two people sharing a birthday hits ninety per cent.

So admittedly the odds of Jim and I sharing the same anniversary date were pretty slim. Out of five people, that we should share the same date is only about nine percent. The odds of us also sharing the same year does make it a remarkable coincidence. Certainly it would not be something to bet on in any random group of five people. Lotteries and casinos are created for people who don’t understand statistics, after all.

In fact, you can take any two people at random, or any two things, and find “remarkable coincidences” simply because if you comb any random data, you can find regularities if you look for them. Take the endless comparisons that are made between John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. People tend to find all the things they share somehow “spooky:” Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, while John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946. Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Kennedy in 1960. Their last names both contain seven letters. Both were shot on a Friday with a single bullet to the head. Lincoln was shot in Ford Theater while Kennedy was shot while riding in a Ford—a Lincoln no less. Both had vice president’s named Johnson who succeeded them. And so on.

And yet, one can just as easily point out all the things that they didn’t have in common. They were born in different months, they died in different months. They do not have the same first names or last names. One wore a beard, the other was beardless. One wore a hat, the other usually didn’t. Their ages at death were different. Their wives had different names. They were born in different states and to different stations in life: one was born in poverty, the other in privelage. And so on—nearly endlessly.

Noticing and paying attention to coincidences is an example of the “biased mind.” As humans, we like to find order in randomness: that’s why we find recognizable shapes of clouds or the groupings of stars in the night. It is where prejudice comes from: we notice only those things that confirm what we want to believe, and discount or fail to notice what doesn’t confirm our beliefs. If we hate lawyers, we notice everytime a lawyer misbehaves, and it serves to reinforce our already negative opinion of them. But those lawyers who behave well, who do something exemplary, we won’t even notice because it’s not part of our expectation of how lawyers behave. Likewise, we won’t notice all the non-lawyers who do the same dasterdly deeds, because their behavior doesn’t affect what we think about lawyers and so we’re not paying attention. We only see what reinforces what we already believe.

Consider what happens when you meet a stranger at a party and you strike up a conversation. Sooner or later you’ll find things you have in common, whether it is a state or town you’ve lived in, a school attended, or a favorite ball team or hobby. Toss random things together and there will be some coincidences. As an exercize, dump a box of toothpicks on the floor. You’ll notice some of them are lying on top of one another. Coincidence? Of course!

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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