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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

Psychology Influences the Perception of Synchronicity

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Self-awareness and pattern recognition are fundamental.

 

Key Points

  • Meaningful coincidences come into existence when someone notices and wonders about their meaning.

  • The initial step usually involves activating the self observer.

  • Pattern recognition can be distorted, seeing patterns that are not there, or missing patterns that are there.

  • Personality traits are correlated with sensitivity to meaningful coincidences.

 

Although numerous explanations have been offered, meaningful coincidences—synchronicity and serendipity—are primarily psychological phenomena. Without you noticing them, they do not exist.


In common usage, the terms synchronicity and serendipity have multiple, often overlapping meanings (Beitman, 2022). Each term usually refers to connections between psychological events and external events. The paradigmatic synchronicity story involved Carl Jung, a patient, and a beetle. The patient dreamed of an expensive scarab ring. Jung went to his office window and caught a rose chafer, a beetle strongly resembling a scarab. Here an element of the patient’s dream resembled an external event (Jung, 1973).


Another paradigmatic serendipity story involved Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. He had been seeking a better antibiotic. Upon returning from vacation he looked at the petri dishes in his laboratory sink and saw evidence of mold juice killing bacteria. After many more serendipities, the mold juice became known as life-saving penicillin. What he was seeking appeared in an unlikely place—a happy accident (Copeland, 2016). As is characteristic of both synchronicity and serendipity, the coming together of two incidents in an unexplained way strikes the person experiencing it as an unlikely event.


What psychological processes are involved with noticing the similarities between a psychological event and an external event and then wondering about their potential meaning? Three of the primary variables include self-observation, pattern recognition, and personality traits.


Self-Observation


Self-observation refers to the practice of consciously observing one's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Self-observation entails an active scan of one's inner landscape (intentions, expectations, images, feelings, and cognitions), the ability to introspect about one's own thoughts, as well as the relation of self to one's social and cultural environment. (Beitman and Soth, 2006) The heightened capacity for self-observation can make individuals more attuned to the subtle synchronicities that occur in their lives.

Pattern Recognition


Pattern recognition occurs when information from the environment is received and entered into short-term memory, leading to the automatic activation of specific content from long-term memory. This process allows us to predict and expect what is coming based on the patterns we recognize. It involves matching the received information with the information already stored in the brain, making connections between memories and perceived information.


Meaningful coincidences can be misinterpreted in two ways analogous to Type 1 and Type 2 errors in statistics. In Type 1 errors, the person sees patterns connecting the two incidents that are not present. Type 2 errors miss the pattern that is likely to be there.


As an example of seeing meaning when there is none, consider this story. A person is contemplating whether to accept a job offer in a different city. They feel torn and uncertain. One evening, as they are discussing their dilemma with a friend, they receive a phone call from an old acquaintance who lives in the same city as the job offer. The old acquaintance knows nothing of the company that made the offer. The person takes this as a sign to take the job. However, the phone call could also mean don’t take the job. The person is choosing the interpretation they prefer. There is no apparent meaning in this coincidence. Conversely, someone going through a major life transition might dream of being at their own funeral without considering the possibility that the dream reflected the tumultuous situation of their current life. The dreamer missed the likely meaning of this coincidence.


Personality Variables


Three research groups have correlated standard personality measures with the valid and reliable Weird Coincidence Scale (WCS). My research group compared scores on WCS involving 280 undergraduates with several scales: the Five Factor Inventory, Referential Thinking Scale, Religious Commitment Inventory, Faith in Intuition, Positive and Negative Affect Scale, Vitality Scale, and Meaning in Life Scale. Five personality traits emerged as potential markers of heightened coincidence sensitivity. The most statistically significant personality trait was referential thinking which is characterized by beliefs that “events around me refer and have to do with me.”


The next most significant personality trait was “positive and negative affect.” A high emotional charge, whether positive or negative, is likely to increase the number of connections between thoughts and environmental events. Then came religious commitment, which is often associated with the idea that a higher power intervenes personally in people’s lives. This suggests that coincidences may be interpreted as a means by which people are being guided. The last significant trait was the search for meaning. The tendency to explore meaning in life is likely to be applied to searching for meaning in coincidences. (Coleman and Beitman, 2009). Attig and colleagues (2011) found correlations between intuition and scores on the WCS, while Costin and colleagues (2011) found correlations between the WCS scores and high emotional states as well as the search for meaning.


Comment


Debate will continue about explanations for synchronicity. The primary arguments involve randomness versus God-Universe. Quantum physics has emerged as an increasingly relied-upon explanation (Halper, 2020). As suggested in this post, psychological variables play the primary role in creating meaning in meaningful coincidences. Future research can examine other psychological variables that influence the sensitivity a person has to synchronicity as well as those variables inversely correlated with synchronicity such as agreeableness (Coleman and Beitman, 2009)

 

References

  • Beitman, B.D. Meaningful Coincidences: How and why synchronicity and serendipity happen. Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions

  • Jung C. G. Synchronicity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Press, 1973

  • Copeland, Samantha. “Was Fleming’s Discovery of Penicillin a Paradigmatic Case of Serendipity, or Not?” Semantic Scholar (2016).

  • Coleman, S. L., and B. D. Beitman. “Characterizing High-Frequency Coincidence Detectors.” Psychiatric Annals 39, no. 5 (2009): 271–79.

  • Attig, Sheryl, Gary E. Schwartz, Aurelio Jose Figueredo, W. Jake Jacobs, and K. C. Bryson. “Coincidences, Intuition, and Spirituality.” Psychiatric Annals 41, no. 12 (December 2011).

  • Costin, George, Kristina Dzara, and David Resch. “Synchronicity: Coincidence Detection and Meaningful Life Events.” Psychiatric Annals 41, no. 12 (December 2011): 572–75

  • Halpern, P. Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect New York: Basic Books 2020

 
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