What's the explanation for these weird coincidences?

For many years now, I have had the uncanny feeling that there’s something odd going on. Now, I’m a scientific kind of person, and not given to paranoia, but just too often I find this happening: I will read about or hear about a specific thing, and then that exact thing will crop up again within the next day or so.

A couple of examples that have happened this week:

  1. On Monday, my girlfriend and I were chatting about films, and more specifically about child actors (a conversation that started with Harry Potter). My girlfriend mentioned that she thought that boy in “that film with Bruce Willis, you know ‘I see dead people’…” was good. I knew the film she meant, but despite racking our brains, neither of us could remember what it was called. I had half a mind to look it up on IMDB as it was annoying us, but never got round to it, and vaguely made a mental note to have a look when I got to work in the morning. Anyway, I get to work on Tuesday morning (I work on the Arts section of a newspaper) and the first article I have to edit is about the film Japanese Story, and included the line “Toni Collette […] whom you will remember as mum to the I-see-dead-people boy in The Sixth Sense…”

  2. While reading the GQ thread about the pronunciation of “Ng”, passing reference was made to the name “Nguyen”. Well, I had no idea how to pronounce that either. Well, I was just reading this thread and there it is - someone else saying they had no idea either, but had discovered it was pronounced “Win”.

Those are just two fairly mundane examples from the last few days, but honestly, this happens to me all the time. It has worked in my favour before now, as I have been on radio quizzes (and pub quizzes) where I think “Oh my god I just read that this morning” - and I’m not talking about topical news items here.

So what’s going on? Do other people find the same thing? Am I just imagining it? I know the theory that states that we only remember the coincidences, and not all the things that aren’t* coincidences, but this really does happen a lot.

Believe it or not … nothing is going on at all.

With the thousands of pieces of info that bombards your brain daily, such coincidences are supposed to happen – and fairly often.

Statistically, nothing is amiss.

Humans are excellent pattern-matching machines. In fact, there are theories of consciousness that posit that’s all our brains are. It greatly benefits us to recognize human faces, for instance. The sensitivity is set high enough that we sometimes get false positives, like a potato chip that looks like Richard Nixon.

The thing is that while you recall all these “eerie” coincidences, there are literally thousands (if not millions) of things you think of week-by-week that don’t recur soon enough to think of it as coincidence. You remember the hits, forget the misses, and eventually begin to think there’s a connection. Paying attention to the misses is a good tool for debunking psychic phenomena of all sorts. Go to a John Edwards taping sometime and count his hit/miss ratio (before it’s edited for broadcast).

It’s nothing special. It happens to us all. Given the amazing amounts of things we think about, talk about, see, read and hear, it’s strange there aren’t more coincidences.

Think about all the times that you speak to someone about actors or movies and don’t see anything related in the paper the next day. Also, this isn’t even that good a coincidence. It would have been much better if the article had concerned Joel Haley Osment.

Two threads on the same message board mentioning the same thing, and that’s a coincidence to you? You don’t think there might have been a tiny connection? Besides, given the volume of the SDMB, this isn’t strange either way.

No, but it is the time-scale. I hadn’t read, or thought about “The Sixth Sense” for months (hey, it’s an old film now), and then within literally 12 hours it has cropped up twice. Now I fully expect I will hear no more about it for ages.

Similarly, the name “Nguyen”. That is not a common name in the UK. I go years without coming across it and then - bang! - I see it in one SDMB thread and then when searching for something else a few hours later (something about the north pole, in fact) there it is again.

That is what I find weird. I’m not saying they are huge coincidence, but they are just little things. Things I haven’t heard of before, or haven’t thought of in ages, and then suddenly they crop up together.

As I said in my OP, I am aware of the theory that “you only remember the hits, not the misses”, but it is still spooky.

Do you have some kind of an alternative hypothesis? I mean, did you start the thread hoping to learn that your psychic brain waves affect articles submitted for publication at your newspaper, or SDMB threads written a year and a half ago, or something?

What else could it be but coincidence? I mean, wouldn’t it be even weirder if, with all the information we’re bombarded by in today’s society, you never encountered a couple of related items in a short timespan? Would that require some Great Big Cosmic Separateness Theory?

Podkayne has a point. What else would it be? Do you have an hypothesis?

As for the time-scale… that’s the point. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice it at all, just like you don’t notice it when you think about a movie you haven’t thought about in months and then not come across it in twelve hours. I’m willing to bet my inheritance that that comes up a lot more frequently.

Also, it’s likely that hearing or reading about something “primes” you to notice it more the next time you encounter it. You might very well have come across references to The Sixth Sense over the course of the past year, and not paid any attention to it. But now that you noticed an occurence of it, you’re more likely to notice it again.

I have to agree with what Q.E.D. said. I find this happens a lot with words - I’ll read an unusual/uncommon word for the first time and suddenly start noticing it in everyday occurrences.

I’ve tested this hypothesis and it seems to work - you can try it too. Think of word you don’t use much. “Array” is one of my favourites - get that word stuck in your mind and make note of how often you suddenly notice its use.

Maybe the OP’s thinking of something like the “Hundredth Monkey”?

…although if you’re a programmer, “array” might not be such a good word choice :wink:

I think there is more to this than just coincidence.

This is in the territory of memes. Quite often, I’ll hear some word, phrase, or idea, that is just common enough that I’ve heard of it, but just uncommon enough that it piques my curiousity, and then I’ll bring it up in conversation, simply because there is a lull, and that is what I am thinking about in the back of my head. If it is interesting to me, it is conceivable it might be interesting to the people I talk to, and the process might repeat.

It is very possible for these ideas to travel quickly, over extremely large distances. Why was your girlfriend interested in that Sixth Sense kid anyway? Who knows, but there are definitely fads in conversation. There are definitely complex interactions between networks of ideas and social networks. There is all sorts of feedback, loops, broadcast, and amplification going on with this sort of stuff. It’s not all coincidence, some of it is pure reflection.

I think it’s just hightened sensitivity to a topic.

For example, last May, our son was stillborn at 38 weeks term. As you might imagine, this has made me and my wife a bit sensitive about baby terms, pregnancies, etc.

Well, for the past year EVERY TV program we regularly watch has had a prominent baby-related storyline (ER , NYPD Blue , Friends , and so on. For a while, we couldn’t stand to turn on the TV.

Of course, having kids is a big ratings booster for TV shows. Many of these shows have had similar story lines in the past, but we only paid attention now because pregnancy and loss were brought home to us.

I know that’s a bit heavier than thinking about Haley Joel Osment, but it’s still the point about being sensitive to a topic makes it stand out.

There are other areas of life where this happens. Periodically, one of my kids will get upset and claim that the other child gets “everything” while he/she gets “nothing”. (Besides the aforementioned loss, I have a 14 year old girl and a 9 year old boy). Each time, I point out to the disappointed sibling that they only remember to keep score when they’re losing. It may seem that one child has had a run of benefits that the other hasn’t, but I only have to coax them to think a little bit before they remember a time when things were going their way more often. It’s the sensitivitiy to the issue at hand that makes these things happen.

This is sometimes called “the red car syndrome.”

It’s very simple. If you buy a red car, you suddenly see red cars everywhere you drive. It’s not because there are suddenly more red cars, it’s because you suddenly are more interested in red cars.

I’ll add to this the phenomenon of buying a new car and then suddenly they’re everywhere. What, did everyone go and buy one two days after I did?

Of course not, but now suddenly they stand out to me, because I have one too. I never did convince my ex that this wasn’t a conspiracy designed to keep him from having something unique. (You want something unique, you buy a Thing. Not a Dodge Neon, dear.)

Then there’s the simulpost synchronicity issue.

Yeah, that’s what I was going to say but **Q.E.D. ** said it better. It’s just attention. Put a thought in your mind and you are likely to notice it when it comes up again.


Then there’s the simulpost synchronicity issue.

It isn’t just hightened awareness either.

Fads are real. Advertisements actually work. There might be a sudden jump in the number of red cars after an effective advertisement is release. Granted, it is mostly hightened awareness, but that isn’t the end of the story.

To elaborate a little on the “they’re just coincidences” answers already given:

You can think of this as an instance of the Birthday Paradox: If you repeatedly select a random element from a collection of N elements, you only need about sqrt(N) tries before you’re likely to draw an element you’ve drawn before. (This is often posed as the puzzle “How many people need to be in a room before there’s a better-than-even chance that two people have the same birthday?”) If you imagine your personal idea-space as having tens of millions of disjoint ideas (a number I carefully arrived at after consultation with my hat), then after encountering only a few thousand ideas you’d expect to see duplicates. In reality your “idea-space” is not made up of disjoint ideas: you might have been surprised had any of a number of related ideas shown up again (perhaps someone quoting “I see dead people” or mentioning Bruce Willis again). This makes “coincidences” even more likely.

On the other hand, there are cases where there is some hidden cause (like multiple related posts on the SDMB, where someone probably read one thread, thought “Hey! I had a question about that too!..”, and posted a second thread). It’s probably paranoia to suspect this mechanism in cases where there’s no obvious connection between the two sources of the idea, though.

Secret message to all but Colophon: Next week’s subject is Die Hard. Drop it into conversation whenever appropriate! Bonus points for subtly-meaningful glances while you’re saying it.