Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 38;   September 17, 2003: Coincidences Do Happen

Coincidences Do Happen

by

When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?

As Ellen left, closing the door behind her, Irene wrote "Ellen" across the top of her pad, tore off the top sheet, opened her right side desk file drawer, and filed the sheet in the growing file she was keeping on Mort. She closed the drawer, and realized again how many people had come to her complaining about him. Mort was becoming a problem.

A pattern that isn't a patternShe picked up her phone and punched Sid's number. "Sid here," he answered.

"Hi Sid, Irene. I need some advice. Got another complaint about Mort."

"Ah," Sid replied. "Does it fit the pattern?"

"In some ways. I mean, it is another complaint. But you might be right — it might not really be about Mort. That's why I want to talk."

Irene and Sid are struggling to decide whether a string of similar events — in this case, complaints about Mort — are really part of a pattern, or whether, perhaps, they're just a coincidental string of similar events. It's sometimes difficult to tell.

Too often,
we see patterns
that aren't there
When we make important decisions, we can't always tell whether the event streams on which we base those decisions are actually trends that convey deeper meaning, or whether they're just coincidences. Too often, we attribute meaning incorrectly, and we use that meaning to make choices that we later come to regret. Here are some insights about streams of similar events.

Coincidences do happen
We hear people say sometimes "There are no coincidences," or "I don't believe in coincidences." Sounds nice, but such expressions are a little melodramatic. Coincidences do happen.
We see more patterns than there are
We often extrapolate data we have to cover situations not yet observed, and we predict behavior in those situations. This is one of the abilities that has made humans so successful as a species. And often, we're mistaken about patterns. Our ability to err in this way is the basis of optical illusions, magic tricks and con games.
We misunderstand statistics
When we experience two similar events, we ask ourselves, "What are the odds of this being a coincidence?" The odds often seem so sky-high that we decide that it cannot be a coincidence. Yet, coincidences do happen, because the universe is so big. For instance, the last two US Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were born in 1946, 44 days apart. The next US President will be the 44th. Coincidence? Absolutely.

When you next say to yourself "This can't be a coincidence," ask, "How do I know that?" If the answer is along the lines of, "It just seems so unlikely," try harder to find real evidence. Unless you find evidence, admit to yourself that you're just using your judgment.

It's OK to use your judgment. But using your judgment while you believe you aren't can lead to trouble. And when trouble comes, that's no coincidence. Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: Credit Appropriation  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Reader Comments

Scott Lord
Edward De Bono has some interesting insights into patterns in some of his books. The main point he makes is that our minds are trained early to look for patterns. When we identify one, we can stop thinking. We already know where this line of thinking, or sequence of events or quotation or whatever will lead. We think until we see a pattern, then we stop thinking. It's scary because coincidences can do the same thing. We see a trend, a pattern and we take them to the end. (Stop thinking).

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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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