# FLUKEY OR SPOOKY? Incredible real-life coincidences ...or are they?

by Ivan Seeking
Tags: coincidences, flukey, incredible, reallife, spooky
 Mentor Sci Advisor Emeritus P: 12,468 This is the problem that I see: What are the odds? Far more often than not, we have no idea what the odds for any particular event might be, so we can only assume that all "coincidences" can be explained as statistical flukes. But we can't state that as a fact. We have no way to test the claim. We have no model by which to make predictions and then test the frequency of such events. If coincidences occur more often than they should, we wouldn't have any way to know.
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 Quote by DaveC426913 I agree. I often have to explain that "coincindences happen. And they don't need to be explained; they're coincidences - that's the definition."
Remember this next time you see something in a painting that looks like a brain.
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 Quote by DaveC426913 I agree. I often have to explain that "coincindences happen. And they don't need to be explained; they're coincidences - that's the definition."
Actually the definition of coincidence would be two incidences taking place at the same time... which happens all the time.
 Mentor Sci Advisor Emeritus P: 12,468 There is no need for language trivia or discussion of the trivial case. We are talking about events that are perceived to be statistically unlikely. The trouble is that we have to define what statistical relationship exists. And then determine how often one would expect a 1:100, or 1:1,000,000 event, or whatever the odds are, to occur.
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 Quote by neutrino The TV programme Million2One airs a lot of real-life incidents like some of the above, and in the end calculates the probability of that happening. There's this old man, somewhere in England. His daughter takes care of him, but for a few hours on a particular day, she goes back to her house, which was just down the street (or somewhere pretty close by). During those fateful hours, the old man has a heart attack. He tries to call his daughter, but by mistake dials the wrong number. But guess what, he dials to a public phone in a quiet corridor in a city hospital. And who was walking by when the phone rang? His granddaughter, who happens to be working as a nurse there! He was eventually brought to the hospital and was saved.
Wow! That is... uncanny :) What are the odds of that? He was a very fluky guy (or very spooky, depending on your views).

There can't be millions of people on their death-beds all trying to call help and getting the wrong number. Enough so that it becomes probable that one would get the right wrong number at some point. Can there?
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 Quote by zoobyshoe Remember this next time you see something in a painting that looks like a brain.
OK, but ten things coming together at the same time and place doesn't really fit coincidence.
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 Quote by Ivan Seeking There is no need for language trivia or discussion of the trivial case. We are talking about events that are perceived to be statistically unlikely. The trouble is that we have to define what statistical relationship exists. And then determine how often one would expect a 1:100, or 1:1,000,000 event, or whatever the odds are, to occur.
I think that the key word in this is "perceived". Perceived as statistically unlikely. I think that's beginning with the faulty premise that there is a statistical unlikelihood to begin with.

The name of this thread is "incredible real-life coincidences" when, really, I don't think they stretch credulity, but they are awfully darned interesting.

How many individual events happen to every person each and every day? We only pay attention to the ones that have any significance or meaning to us personally because we'd otherwise be overwhelmed with information. Add to that that our brains are designed to perceive patterns and then we also have a tendency to group together supporting ideas that include evidence of that pattern.

A simple one is how many people do we walk past every day? We don't take note of the majority of them nor does it seem remarkable to us that there are other people in public places where we are. But run into someone at Safeway who you haven't seen since high school 30 years ago, and you both attended a high school on the opposite end of the country, and now you have a "what are the chances?" event. It's not a statistical question. You've already been in that store day in and out with hundreds and hundreds of people. Why is running into someone you know less likely than running into all kinds of people you don't know? You don't pay attention to one grouping, but you pay attention to the other grouping.

And I think if we peer too closely at coincidences -- which are, I think, really just regular events we pay attention to rather than not -- we begin wandering into synchronicity and meaning and whatnot. (One especially has to be careful of the "whatnot". It sneaks up on you.)
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 Quote by GeorginaS You've already been in that store day in and out with hundreds and hundreds of people. Why is running into someone you know less likely than running into all kinds of people you don't know? You don't pay attention to one grouping, but you pay attention to the other grouping.
The probability of running into someone you know is much higher than running into somebody you haven't seen for 30 years and on the other side of the country, I think it's the latter that's more significant in that situation. This is a pretty trivial point, but the number of people you don't know far outnumbers the number of which you do know, so it would make sense you would pay attention to that minority when you are out. That being said, I don't think you would walk into a store, expecting to see someone from 30 years ago, and from the other side of the country.
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 Quote by Ivan Seeking There is no need for language trivia or discussion of the trivial case. We are talking about events that are perceived to be statistically unlikely. The trouble is that we have to define what statistical relationship exists. And then determine how often one would expect a 1:100, or 1:1,000,000 event, or whatever the odds are, to occur.
I brought this up before a few years back, but I guess it bears repeating. Feynman deftly pointed out the irrelevancy of statistical probability to any given event:

"You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won't believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"

Any given specific event is statistically extremely improbable. The more specifically you define the event the more true that becomes (that particular license plate on that particular night!). As Georgina pointed out, we only notice the incredible improbability when the specific event has personal significance. The odds of running into a person you haven't seen in 30 years at the store one day are actually about the same as the odds of running into a specific individual you've never encountered before, if only you appreciate how specific that specific individual actually is, and how specific that time and place. Each stranger, each time, each place, is a very specific. Once you pay attention to that, and focus on how specific they are, the odds of you encountering them become less and less probable. We beat unbelievable odds moment by moment, all day long.

As Georgina emphasized, the key word is "perceived". We are pattern-seeking creatures, with a distinct leaning toward giving everything a kind of "pattern test". Very small whiffs of familiarity put us on alert and we test them to see if they fit a pattern we know. By this mechanism, a circle, two dots and an arc are "recognized" as a smiling face: , when in fact it bears no authentic resemblance to any face in nature. We even accept it rotated 90 degrees, without the circle :) It's a stripped down abstraction that never-the-less works due to our propensity for checking for patterns at many different levels of perception. Certain kinds of specificity take on extraordinary importance. Other kinds, though equally specific, are ignored, discounted.

Calulating the probability of an event ends up being immaterial in determining if it was a coincidence or not. If you define the event according to certain parameters it become statistically impossible that it should ever occur. Define it according to other parameters, and it becomes inevitable that it should occur.
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 Quote by zoobyshoe As Georgina pointed out, we only notice the incredible improbability when the specific event has personal significance. The odds of running into a person you haven't seen in 30 years at the store one day are actually about the same as the odds of running into a specific individual you've never encountered before, if only you appreciate how specific that specific individual actually is, and how specific that time and place. Each stranger, each time, each place, is a very specific. Once you pay attention to that, and focus on how specific they are, the odds of you encountering them become less and less probable. We beat unbelievable odds moment by moment, all day long.
Thanks for clarifying that, I think I was referring to all strangers, not a particular individual. But maybe a person isn't considered "particular" until you actually acknowledge them. For example, the probably of seeing "a person" in the street is very high, but if you find out his name and then hope to see him again, that probability drastically reduces. So, really, its the probability of finding him again thats low, not the probability of finding him in the first place. Since you've already seen the friend from 30 years ago, the chance of finding them again is very low, whereas the chance of finding a stranger for the first time is very high.
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 Quote by zoobyshoe Any given specific event is statistically extremely improbable.
Thank you for all of that, Zooby. You fleshed those thoughts out far more coherently than I did.
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 Quote by zoobyshoe "You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won't believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"
The one I've always used (because I invented it) is:

"More babies are born during a full moon than any other time. Just ask any nurse; they'll corroborate it."

To which my response is: when is the last time a nurse, while attending a birth, looked out the window and remarked "Wow, another baby born during a waning gibbous Moon!"?
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 Quote by QuanticEnigma Thanks for clarifying that, I think I was referring to all strangers, not a particular individual. But maybe a person isn't considered "particular" until you actually acknowledge them. For example, the probably of seeing "a person" in the street is very high, but if you find out his name and then hope to see him again, that probability drastically reduces. So, really, its the probability of finding him again thats low, not the probability of finding him in the first place. Since you've already seen the friend from 30 years ago, the chance of finding them again is very low, whereas the chance of finding a stranger for the first time is very high.
You're missing Feyman's point. A "friend from 30 years ago" is much more specific than a "stranger", just like the license plate ARW 357 is vastly more specific than just "a license plate." To appreciate how unlikely encountering the stranger is, even for the very first time, you have to define them at least as specifically as the friend from 30 years ago. The stranger has to become something like: A 179 lb. blonde man wearing a leather jacket over a purple t-shirt.

You won't notice how specific that man is under normal circumstances because the specificity of his weighing 179 lbs, being blonde, and wearing a leather jacket over a purple t-shirt all at once means nothing to you. Regardless, it's pretty specific and the odds of you encountering a man that specifically defined are extremely low. Keep your eyes open for the license plate ARW 357, for instance. You'll probably never see it. Yet, on that particular night before his lecture, that's the very license plate Feynman saw. Amazing! What are the odds?

The point is that improbable odds can't be used to support the argument a thing was not coincidental. We only get exited at how specific an event is when the particular specificity happens to mean something to us. In fact, all events are specific, hence: improbable, but we normally don't notice that or care. The odds of finding a particular specificity that happens to be important to us now and then are actually high because we are pattern-seeking creatures, with prodigious memories, and we enthusiastically make connections.

That doesn't mean everything is a coincidence. It just means we can't cite improbable odds in support of non-coincidence. Proving a thing was not a coincidence, if you wanted to try, would have to be done by some other investigative means or logic.
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 Quote by QuanticEnigma The probability of running into someone you know is much higher than running into somebody you haven't seen for 30 years and on the other side of the country, I think it's the latter that's more significant in that situation. This is a pretty trivial point, but the number of people you don't know far outnumbers the number of which you do know, so it would make sense you would pay attention to that minority when you are out. That being said, I don't think you would walk into a store, expecting to see someone from 30 years ago, and from the other side of the country.
Hi all;

I just read this entire thread. Interesting. I would respectfully call most of the incidents mentioned thus far, as coincidence or confirmation bias.

Re the above post;

- Running into someone you hadn't seen for 30 years ? Unremarkable.

- Running into someone you hadn't seen for 30 years, but whom you were clearly thinking about (for the first time in years) 30 seconds ago, or 30 minutes ago ? Very remarkable.

And as Ivan says, what are the odds .. and many deeper questions than that too.
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 Quote by turbo-1 http://www.physicsforums.com/showpos...74&postcount=8 Old post, but still a "wow" moment.
A neighbor of mine had a ferret that I can't remember the name of - I'll call him Bob. Anyway, Bob got away and my neighbor put up flyers around the neighborhood. Several days later he got a call from a local tavern saying that they had his ferret. The name of the place was Bob's Tavern.
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 Quote by GeorginaS Thank you for all of that, Zooby. You fleshed those thoughts out far more coherently than I did.
Thanks!
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