On coincidence and probability

We all have weird and strange stories about amazing coincidences that have happened to us. In fact, we often think there is something to the highly improbable coincidences that happen to us every day. I went to a hockey game in Austin, Texas the other day. I started talking to a couple at the game, and it turns out that the woman and I share the exact same birthday–both day and year. It only took me 53 years and ten months to finally meet someone with my exact same birthday. We are both from southern Minnesota and original Minnesota North Star fans. We think that coincidences are bizarre because we fail to understand the difference between impossible and improbable. Impossible means it can’t happen, improbable means that no matter how unlikely, it could still happen. In other words, just because a think is improbable, such as getting an actual royal flush in poker, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just a couple of years ago while playing Texas Hold’em with the family, I got an actual royal flush–improbably, but not impossible. Improbability can create the illusion in our minds that a random event–running into someone with your exact same birthday or name–is impossible, but the impossible is actually quite rare and even more difficult to prove. No matter how improbable running into someone from your home town in a department store 6,000 miles from home might be, it is still possible, and it happened to me. Where human perception goes wrong is its supposition that the improbable is impossible, but improbability is not a test for impossibility. Given the fact that improbably things happen all the time–winning the lottery, for example–coincidences happen all the time, but they have no intrinsic meaning that is odd or strange. The occurrence of coincidences is just a simple case of beating the odds, but because each coincidental event is independent of all other events, there is no correlation between any two given coincidences. In other words, just because you flip five “heads” in a row, this says nothing whatsoever about what will happen the sixth flip. As humans we would like to imbue the events in our lives with meaning–that it was pre-ordained, or destiny, or whatever–because without meaning, we drift from place to place, person to person, wondering what we are all about. How can we make a good decision if everything is just chance? By thinking this way, we give weight and meaning to coincidences that have no meaning, seemed impossible, but were really only improbable. How many times have you gone to the grocery store in your neighborhood and not run into anyone you know? Or the opposite–you go to the grocery store and you run into everyone you know. Both scenarios are just as probable and just as meaningless. Some days you know all the answers on Jeopardy, other days you need the dunce cap. Ever find something that has been lost for twenty-years? Coincidence, not really. Events are governed by parameters, and even the most random meeting with a long lost relative while buying dish detergent in a store in Chicago, is not at all random and totally possible. True randomness, such as the pattern of raindrops on a sidewalk (some overlap while leaving dry spots) or the birthdays of a hundred people at a hockey game (some will coincide while many days will be vacant), is rare if not impossible. We are constantly making decisions which alter our world, our choices, our locations, our motivations, our habits, all of which drives us into communion with others with the same habits, vices, and interests. If you think about it, improbabilities and randomness only serve to misguide our perception of a chaotic world where the vast majority of the things that happen to us have no real meaning at all.