The 20th century psycholoanalyst Carl Jung was fascinated by coincidences. Where did they come from and what caused them to occur? Are they meaningful, or completely random?
Seeking an answer for these questions, Jung developed his theory of synchronicity as a way to explain their existence. The theory itself came about in response to an almost unbelievable coincidence that he observed. A patient of Jung's told the psychotherapist during her session one day that she had dreamt of an insect, a golden scarab, the night before. In the middle of the session, an actual golden scarab (which was highly unusual for the location and climate) hit the window of Jung's office. By the theory later developed by Jung, it was an event of synchronicity, a "meaningful coincidence" that couldn't be explained by science or psychology.
Long before Jung's time and still today, even the skeptics among us are fascinated by coincidences. As Psychology Today put it, "Everyone loves a coincidence." And it's true: We marvel over these seemingly bizarre events, tell our friends about them, and remember them for years. So what is it about a good coincidence that grabs our attention?
Coincidences are commonly defined as "a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection" -- apparent being the key word.
"Our tendency to see patterns everywhere means that sometimes we discover wonderful truths about the world," wrote Psychology Today's Kaja Perina. "Just as often, we are drawn into subjective cul-de-sacs."
From Jung's early speculations to present-day theories, here's what you should know about coincidences.
Jung believed in the existence of 'meaningful coincidences.'
For Jung, coincidences -- which he called "acts of creation in time" -- occur when we find our inner state mirrored in the outside world. To explain the power of "meaningful coincidences" like the golden scarab, his concept of synchronicity ventured into the realm of parapsychology, attempting to unlock the link between "meaningful" psychic and physical phenomenon.
"Synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers," Jung wrote in the introduction to the I Ching.
So how, and why, did these events occur? Jung argued that the psychic event (for instance, the dream of the scarab) and the coinciding physical event (the actual scarab on the window) are objects "of the same quality," which causes them to co-occur, or coincide. It's an interesting theory, but because of the lack of scientific backing, many psychologists since have been unsatisfied with Jung's answers.
Our brains are conditioned to look for patterns.
It often doesn't take much for us to observe something and say, "What are the chances!" It could be spotting an old book that was recently recommended to us on a store shelf directly in our line of vision, or bumping into someone on the street who we haven't seen since college. But are these events really coincidences?
Post-Jung, some psychologists and statisticians have held a more skeptical view about the meaning of coincidences, which they say can be explained away by a common (and fallacious) habit of mind.
Our inclination to find connections and patters in random data is what's known in psychology as apophenia. So when we spot a coincidence, what's really happening is that our brain is simply exercising its fundamental ability to identify patterns -- something we can do even when there are none, statistically speaking.
Coincidences may be rooted in particular cognitive biases.
Coincidences may be explained by not only our predisposition towards patterns and connections, but also by several other cognitive biases that keep us from seeing the causal connections between coinciding events.
One common thinking error related to coincidences is known in psychology as Type 1 error. This has to do with false positives, or our tendency to believe a hypothesis is true when it's not -- in the case of coincidences, we believe in a link between two things when in fact there is none.
Coincidences are also rooted, according to psychologists, in "hidden causes" -- something causes the coincidental event to occur, but because this is not apparent to us, the event seems causeless and therefore random, making it seem all the more mysterious and meaningful. After all, a coincidence doesn't feel so wondrous after we discover why it has occurred.
The laws of probability predict that coincidences will occur.
Some psychologists have suggested that the frequency of coincidences we notice is largely related to how flexible the mind is in identifying meaningful relationships -- this, and the fact that our everyday lives allow the opportunity for countless coincidences to occur. The law of chance dictates that sooner or later, a coincidence will occur.
Without getting into the complexities of probability theory, statisticians agree that randomness itself may not be as "random" as we think -- because of our innate thinking biases, we're likely to perceive random events as having connections when they actually don't. Most "coincidental" events are simply accidents that obey the laws of probability, as much as we underestimate the likelihood of concurring events.
Coincidences can open the door to wonder.
As HuffPost President and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington writes in her upcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder, being open to the serendipity of coincidences can awaken our childlike sense of wonder. She explains:
"Coincidences, however prosaic, elicit our curiosity about the nature of the universe and all that we don't yet know or understand ... We don't have to know what coincidences mean, or arrive at some grand conclusion when we encounter them. But they serve as sporadic reminders to maintain our sense of wonder, to stop every now and again and allow ourselves to be fully present in the moment and open to life's mystery."
Wherever you stand on coincidences, they do awaken questions within us about the nature of life and human existence.
"[Coincidence is] a porthole into one of the most interesting philosophical questions we can ask: Are the events of our lives ultimately objective or subjective?," writes Jill Neimark in Psychology Today. "Is there a deeper order, an overarching purpose to the universe? Or are we the lucky accidents of evolution, living our precious but brief lives in a fundamentally random world that has only the meaning we choose to give it?"
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article suggested that Carl Jung worked during the 19th century, when in fact it was the 20th. The story has been updated.