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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

Can We Change Our Mind About Coincidence?

The challenge of fixed beliefs about meaningful coincidences.

 

Key Points

  • Many beliefs about coincidences are fixed by strong emotions.

  • Rationality and evidence may have little effect in changing them.

  • Increasing doubt through direct experience and personal stories by trusted others increase the likelihood of change.

 

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? First, consider this.

Many beliefs are fixed by strong emotions. Outside influences have little effect while reverberating internet echo chambers can strengthen fixed beliefs. Human history is littered with the dead bodies of those whose beliefs differed from those with more swords, guns, and armies. In the study of meaningful coincidences, the concepts of God/Universe and random/chance hold the strongest emotionality. As reflected in comparing one post on this blog emphasizing randomness with another emphasizing God, rational and intelligent people will not budge from their fixed belief in one or the other. The paradox of their very opposite positions is not self-evident to either of them. There are some integrations. Some groups hold that God speaks through randomness and so they elect their leaders through chance rituals. Seeking guidance, some may randomly turn to a page in their holy books. Despite these meldings of randomness and God, the fixed belief in either explanation often fails to give way to compromise. Similarly, the potential value of synchronicity or serendipity varies with belief. A primary intent of this blog and the numerous synchronicity and serendipity books and articles is to loosen the fixedness of the belief that meaningful coincidences are of little value.

The Place of Rationality

What about rational dialogue? Regrettably, those who believe in the power of rational discourse often fail to realize that their well-considered arguments have the effect of rain on a sheet of metal. The ideas hit and pour off making no dent in the belief. Instead rationality is used by the believer to support the belief by selecting evidence that reinforces it. For example, people who refuse to be vaccinated marshal lists of facts ranging from the untrustworthiness of pharmaceutical companies (many have been sued and paid huge fines) and their own personal stories of mistreatment by standard medical treatment as well as the very real potential for harmful side effects. They neglect the data demonstrating the effectiveness and ignore the low probability of harmful reactions. Similarly, those who find meaningful coincidence irrelevant may argue that they have seen no evidence to suggest their value. Many do not even notice them although research strongly suggests they are common. How can their attention be brought to consider their potential value?

The Limits of Evidence

In the classic study “When Prophecy Fails,” (1956) psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues described what happened to a small cult in the Midwest when prophecies of its leader did not come true. A catastrophic flood would deluge America on December 21, 1954. Before this apocalypse, a fleet of flying saucers would rescue them. When the fleet did not arrive, some left the cult. Those who stayed held onto their belief and began to proselytize about the imminent arrival of the fleet. Direct evidence had the opposite effect on this latter group. As Prochaska and colleagues have repeatedly shown, change moves through stages—pre-contemplation, contemplation, change, and maintenance. Those with fixed beliefs are pre-contemplators. They haven’t considered that a belief change might be a good idea. Contemplators consider changing a belief.

A Grandmother Incorporates Evidence

One way to increase contemplation is generating internal doubt. As Janet Payne, a mother of 7 and grandmother of 4, lived her quiet life on Prince Edward Island, Canada, the number 383 kept appearing. Why? and how? she wondered. Her questioning challenged her belief in what she had been taught about reality. It unsettled her. Was she crazy somehow? She decided to experiment and used the numbers to decide to return to school as a career counselor for women to use synchronicity and intuition to select career possibilities. Things seemed to fall in place on her journey and she hoped that she could help others in a similar way. Janet wondered about explanations and began to see the potential value of coincidences.

Tell Your Coincidence Stories

Human beings learn through stories more readily than by research-generated data and rational arguments. The stories told by believable others can insinuate the doubt that expands belief to embrace the wider view of the nature of reality that includes meaningful coincidences. If you believe that synchronicity and serendipity can be useful, after you talk about the weather, tell a coincidence story. Your friends just might reciprocate with one of their own. As for how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb? One…but the light bulb has to want to change.

 

References

  • Festinger, L, Riecken,, H. W. , & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails (1956) New York: Harper: Torchbooks

 

Photo by Yosuke Ota on Unsplash

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