One person’s coincidence another person’s yawn?

I recently came across the late Michael Thalbourne‘s  ‘A BRIEF TREATISE ON COINCIDENCE’.  Fascinating!

Especially notable in Michael’s account is the huge  gap that exists between the impact of a coincidence on the experiencer and an outsider perspective on the very same event.

This fact is revealed in his own experiences of sharing coincidences and witnessing other people’s reactions. This observation has been confirmed in laboratory research suggesting that one person’s amazing coincidence can bring on a yawn.

Michael Thalbourne

Dr Michael Thalbourne (MT)  was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on March 24th 1955 and passed away on the 4th of May 2010. He was educated at the University of Adelaide and the University of Edinburgh. From 1980 until 1987 Thalbourne was employed at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St Louis Missouri, USA.  In 1992 he returned to his hometown of Adelaide where he served as the President of the Australian Institute for Parapsychological Research and was the editor of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology.

Survey of Beliefs about Coincidences

MT used a 10-item survey of attitudes towards, and experience of, coincidence with  24 people.  To  the statement “I have experienced truly astounding coincidences”, 25% reported “often”, 63% “now and again”, and 13% reported “rarely”; nobody reported “never”.

Another statement was:  “I experience many small coincidences which would probably not impress other people but which make life interesting for me”. 29% responded “strongly agree”, 58% said “agree”, while 8% were uncertain and 4% said “disagree”.

A third statement was “It takes a certain vigilance of mind to see subtle coincidences.” Sixty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were uncertain, and the same percentage said “disagree”. Thus, the majority agreed with the statement.

The causation of coincidences was included in the survey. MT asked: “Coincidences may be expected to occur from time to time just by chance or pure luck, and they never signify anything important or meaningful.”  MT reports that no one said “strongly agree”,  33% said “agree”, 21% were uncertain, while 29% disagreed and 17% strongly disagreed.

Another statement was “People who report many coincidences must be reading meaning into events which are just random.” Eight percent strongly agreed, 25% agreed, 38% were uncertain, 21% disagreed, and 8% strongly disagreed.

What is quite interesting is the strong link between having a positive attitudes towards coincidences and being much more likely to believe in experiences of the paranormal (r = .72, p < .001).

Egocentricity – the ‘yawn’ factor

One problem in considering coincidences is the  “egocentricity” bias (Falk, 1989).  People consider their own coincidences to be surprising and worthy of note, but other people hearing those same coincidences tend to be dismissive of them, thinking they occurred purely by chance.

MT confesses that, following the Falk study, he became more reluctant to share his own personal coincidences with other people. As a person who recently shared a coincidence in print myself, I can well understand MT’s reaction.  But the large number of coincidences that he experienced seemed too great to be a chance effect, so he thought he’d carry on sharing them. I have also felt this way at times, and there is no fool-proof way of eliminating the paranormal hypothesis, as far as I am aware.

MT gives three detailed examples of what he took to be potentially ‘paranormal’ coincidences. I quote these here as part of a developing portfolio of published cases.

MT Case 1

Thursday April 21st, 2005…

MT states: “I was deeply immersed in Liddell and Scott’s (1889) An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. In particular I was studying the preposition ΠΡΟ (i.e., PRO) to see whether it could mean “on behalf of”. I scoured the two-thirds of a column devoted to this preposition, but could not find the meaning I wanted. I had to give up at that point, because at 6:30 I was to go out to a fast food restaurant with a friend, for dinner.

Less than half an hour later, when we were at the restaurant, there passed by our table a young lad in soccer gear: on his shirt were the words, in Greek, ΑΣΠΙΣ ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ (ASPIS PRONOIA). I for my part was astonished that he should be wearing, in Greek, even though as part of a longer word, the preposition ΠΡΟ. I knew that ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ was a compound word made up of that preposition ΠΡΟ plus ΝΟΙΑ (from NOEEIN, to perceive), meaning something like “forethought”. (However, I was unfamiliar with the word ΑΣΠΙΣ, and I asked the boy what it meant, but he didn’t know. When I got home, I looked it up and discovered that it meant “a body of soldiers”. So the soccer shirt meant something like “a body of soldiers with forethought.”)

It seemed to me that the coincidence of having two quite unrelated instances of the Greek word ΠΡΟ within half an hour of each other was highly unlikely to occur by chance.

I’d never seen the boy before, and have never seen him since, nor have I seen this Greek phrase (or any other Greek words) on another soccer shirt. However, those around me with whom I shared the coincidence dismissed it as chance (as perhaps the reader will too!) But the egocentric bias is strong for the experient of a coincidence as well as for the people to whom it is told. Thus, I continue to regard the coincidence (and many that I’ve experienced since) as being more than chance.”

MT Case 2

“Saturday, December 11th, 2004, my family and I were gathered at the flat of my youngest brother to celebrate his 42nd birthday. Two coincidences occurred to me that day. First of all, my brother possesses a CD of the composer Monteverdi which he himself never plays but which he good-heartedly loans to me now and again. I spoke aloud the name of the composer, Monteverdi. I was misheard, and was asked “Verdi”? I said, “No. Claudio Monteverdi.” But the question got me thinking, “What is Verdi’s first name? Is it Giuseppe?”

I resolved to check my Webster’s Biographical Dictionary when I got home. Yes, p. 1515reveals that his name was indeed Giuseppe. The coincidence occurred a little later when I was watching the evening news, and a man was interviewed whose first name was given at the bottom of the screen as Giueseppe. (I in fact wondered if the station had spelt the name Giuseppe incorrectly.)”

MT Case 3

“The …coincidence involved my father telling a joke about George W. Bush wanting to get into Heaven to talk with Moses. Bush tried several times, but on each occasion Moses told St. Peter to send him away. Finally, Moses said “The last time I talked with abush I ended up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years!” That evening, just after 8:30, I was watching a commercial station on which there was a movie called For Richer or Poorer with Tim Allen in it as an entrepreneur engaged in setting up theme parks. The character revealed his latest theme park inspiration, which he called “Holy Land”, and pointed out a bush “which bursts into flame every hour”. I know for a fact that my father was unacquainted with the movie and so he had no idea that the theme of the burning bush was to arise later that evening. It is interesting to me that when I told my father about what I’d seen and heard on TV that very night, sceptic that he was, his reaction was one of dogged silence, and certainly not the cry “How amazing!”, as he battled his cognitive dissonance. If he said nothing about the coincidence it would go away.”

MT’s conclusion

MT  dismisses skeptical explanations based on chance “as a bottomless pit, able to swallow up each and every coincidence that does not already have a normal explanation.”

On the other hand, MT wisely states that “we must be ever cautious about the coincidences that we do evaluate as paranormal.”

The fact is, however, there is no fool-proof method to say one way or the other. It comes down to one’s own subjective evaluation.

What do you think?  Is pure chance the only credible explanation, or  are there hidden causes, or is something paranormal going on?

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