Miracle or coincidence?

Everyone has experienced one or more coincidences that seem so amazing it feels like they must be unique and somehow have meaning for our personal lives. For example, we dream about a location we’ve never been to and the next day we find out a friend is moving there. Or we keep seeing the same number repeatedly, like 11:11 or 12:12. Or we meet someone with the same name as our childhood dog. Or we dream about an event, and it comes true. Or we think of a person we haven’t seen in a long time, and they call us that day.

On the surface, it may seem like these coincidences are miracles because they’re so rare and random. But when we look at them more closely, we’ll realise that there are a lot of factors at play. For instance, the world is full of billions of people, so it’s not that surprising that you would eventually meet someone with the same name as your childhood dog. And there are an infinite number of numbers, so it’s not that surprising that you would eventually see the same number multiple times in a row.

Humans are not very skilled at calculating the probability of something happening in everyday life. We often overestimate how rare an event is, and this makes us more likely to see meaning in coincidences. The reason we find calculating probabilities so difficult is that we don’t have a lot of experience with probability. We might see the number 7 come up twice in a row and think that’s amazing, but if we knew that the probability of any number coming up twice in a row is 1 in 6 (or 16.7%), we wouldn’t be so amazed.

There’s also the issue of confirmation bias, which is when we look for evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore evidence that disproves them. For example, if you believe in synchronicity (meaningful coincidences), you’re more likely to notice the times when two things seem to happen together than the times when they don’t. But if you don’t believe in synchronicity, you’re more likely to notice the times when two things don’t seem to happen together than the times when they do. There are lots of other psychological reasons for us to find coincidences meaningful. Our brains are built to see order and meaning even in random happenings.

There is usually no harm in thinking that a coincidence is significant if you want to. But there are times when it might be potentially harmful. For example, if you keep seeing the same number over and over and think it’s a sign from a loved one who has passed away, you might not seek out professional help for depression or grief. Or, if you think a coincidence is a sign that you’re supposed to take a certain action, like quitting your job, and it doesn’t work out, you might feel like you made the wrong decision.

So, the next time you experience a coincidence, ask yourself if there’s a more rational explanation for it. And if you can’t find or think of one, enjoy the momentary feeling of amazement. But don’t let it take over your life or lead you to make decisions that you wouldn’t otherwise make. Any meaning we make out of coincidences comes from us — from our own minds.

Dr Steve Parker —

Have you ever experienced a coincidence that you thought was meaningful? Tell us about it in the comments!

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