For many people coincidences are all good: if you wait long enough, you can probably find a positive outcome. Here we look at coincidences that from the beginning seem to promise a great outcome but then yield nothing.
Alan Colmes had applied for a job. On a flight, he discovered that he was seated next to the boss of the person with whom he’d been talking about the job. What a coincidence?! They had a good talk, and Colmes thought it meant that he would get the job.
Romance probably breeds the most “false promise” coincidences, especially for individuals who over-rely on coincidences as metaphysical signposts pointing to the “path” they should take. The excitement of a new romantic interest can be greatly boosted by surprising coincidences that seem to signal a profound bond—presumed signs that a relationship is “meant to be.”
In his book, “When the Impossible Happens,” psychiatrist Stanislav Grof wrote of a romance fueled by coincidences that burned brightly but faded quickly. Two of his friends had suggested he meet Joan Halifax, a friend of theirs, and someone with whom they felt he had much in common. After several months, Grof decided to give her a call. He was going to present a paper at an American Psychiatry Association (APA) meeting in Dallas and figured he could swing by Miami (where she lived) to visit her on his way back home to New York.
As it turns out, she was also going to the APA meeting—and they had both, coincidentally, booked rooms in the same hotel. Without having communicated about where they could meet, Grof coincidentally met her at the first conference event he attended. They had never seen each other, and no one introduced them at the event, but when they saw each other across the room, they somehow recognized each other.
A series of other coincidences pulled the relationship speedily toward marriage. Even at the wedding, a repeated theme of rainbows seemed to bestow blessings and good auspices for the union.
But the morning after the wedding, Grof had a coincidence hangover: “As soon as I opened my eyes,” he wrote, “I sensed that something was terribly wrong. All the thrill and ecstatic feelings of the preceding day were gone; I felt sober and somber. The wave of excitement we had experienced the last few days suddenly felt illusory and deceptive. And what was worse, marrying Joan suddenly seemed like a serious error.”
It wasn’t long before they divorced.
He concluded, “I learned not to trust unconditionally the seductive power of such experiences. … It is essential to refrain from acting out while we are under their spell and not to make any important decisions until we have again both feet on the ground.”
Lynn Corrigan posted about her own false-promise coincidence series on Facebook: “I know someone with whom I share so many coincidences all the way back to childhood. The way we met as adults was also full of coincidences and long shots. Yet I need this person out of my life now. I wish we never met. So I’m wondering why the heck he was put in my path.”
A man named Sahmat told me that he read a book by a woman with whom he realized he had a lot in common: “I was most struck by the appearance of three synchronicities in our backgrounds,” he said. “We both grew up in Quaker families outside of Philadelphia, both were trained as biologists, and both eventually went to seminary and got an advanced degree in religious studies. I thought, ‘This is pretty unusual; we may be the only two Quaker biologist seminarians on the planet.'”
On the way to meet her, he saw many references to the number 37, one of his favorite numbers. These numerical sightings confirmed for him that he was on the right path.
And then he met up with this woman and found that they were not at all suited to each other.
The experience made him reflect on recent failures in attempts to make new connections with people. He realized he should instead revive older connections, specifically with his friend Larry.
The timing of the reconnection was perfect: it turned out that Larry had been working on a project that required Sahmat’s help. “So on the surface, my experience with the woman … turned out to be a ‘false promise synchronicity,’ but because I sought deeper guidance, it turned out not to be a false promise at all, but rather a necessary step to the real next connection I needed to make.”
Quoting Bob Dylan, he said, “There’s no success like failure.”
The paradox presented by coincidences is described by cognitive scientists Thomas Griffiths of Brown University and Joshua Tenenbaum of MIT in their 2007 paper “From Mere Coincidences to Meaningful Discoveries,” published in the journal Cognition: “[Coincidences] seem to be involved in both our most grievous errors of reasoning, and our greatest causal discoveries.”
Griffiths and Tenenbaum were primarily looking at the role of coincidence in scientific discovery. But some of their discussion may also be applied to the discovery of romantic love or personal opportunity through coincidence. “Coincidences,” they wrote, “are events that provide support for a hypothesis, but not enough support to convince us to accept that hypothesis.”
Let’s say the hypothesis is that a relationship, or even a marriage, will work out very well. The point is that a person should not wholeheartedly believe that hypothesis based on the coincidences alone.
The other extreme would be to ignore all coincidences out of fear that they are misleading. But as these researchers point out, some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made through coincidence (and likely some of the greatest romantic discoveries, too!).
The chances were good that Sahmat would connect well with a fellow Quaker biologist seminarian because they shared key interests. Just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean he should ignore all such coincidences in the future. And he used his false promise coincidence as a stepping-stone to a more secure relationship.
There’s a whole field of study dedicated to hope—including false hope.
Some researchers in this field worry that people who have false hopes, often based on illusions, will suffer psychological blows when they fail. Yet other researchers, such as Charles R. Snyder at the University of Kansas, think that a high-hope approach to life, even if it includes some minor illusions, leads to greater success and even psychological resiliency.
Running into each other unexpectedly in an out-of-the-way place, having family members with the same names, seeing rainbows at your wedding—all such coincidences may contribute to that feeling of magic when two people fall in love. But can they live with each other on a daily basis and share life together in a meaningful way? That’s a consideration beyond coincidence.
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This article was previously published by Psychology Today, as part of a series of articles by Bernard Beitman, MD, on the science of synchronicity and serendipity. Beitman is a visiting professor at the University of Virginia. He is the former chair of the University of Missouri-Columbia department of psychiatry. See his blog, Connecting With Coincidence, to learn more about Coincidence Studies.