Superstition and coincidence

Have you ever experienced what seemed like a crazy coincidence — something that seemed so unlikely that it couldn’t possibly be coincidence alone? It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something mysterious is going on.

AlphaBear creepinessRecently, I was playing a word-based video game called Alphabear. Letter tiles appear randomly on the board, and you must use them to make words. Used tiles can combine to make larger and larger bears that are worth more bonus points at the end. But you only have so many turns to use each tile; if you don’t, the expired tiles become rocks and get in the way.

Look at the screen shot of the game board (I had to take a picture of this). I only had two turns left to use the orange tiles, so was trying to use as many of them as possible.  But read those seven tiles in order, starting from the top and working clockwise: they actually spell out my name. It almost felt like a message from beyond. After all, what were the chances? The right number of tiles, all at the same time, in the right order? How could that be just a coincidence?

(At this point, you might think I’m a little wacko, especially if pattern recognition isn’t your strong suit. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I checked with the designers to make sure this wasn’t something they programmed into the game. It wasn’t, but they thought it was pretty hilarious.)

We have an intuitive sense of whether an event is probable or improbable, and the more improbable it seems, the more our minds demand an explanation. But as researchers have repeatedly demonstrated, our inner statistician isn’t terribly sophisticated, and can lead us into faulty and superstitious thinking.

How likely is it that the video game would spell out my name in that way, especially given the fact that the result above depended on so many other choices I had already made in previous turns? Granted, the probability is infinitesimally small. But the same could be said about any other specific combination of seven letters. How likely is it that the letters would have spelled “DFGHEEB”? Pretty small — but who cares?

“Rare” events are happening all the time — we just don’t usually notice them as such, or notice them period. When we do, it’s because our minds are primed to pay attention to things that are more significant to us in some way, just as people prefer to live in states whose name begins with the same letter that their own name does (I’m not making that up).

For that reason, anyone confronted with seemingly strange circumstances can fall into superstitious thinking. In most cases, it’s harmless. But every so often someone will use such circumstances to justify what may be a bad decision: Look what happened! No way that could be just coincidence. God’s trying to tell me something — he’s giving me permission to go ahead and do this thing. And if God is sending me a personal sign, doesn’t that trump what the Bible says?

Sure: it’s possible that God might send us such a sign. There’s biblical precedent for that. But that’s quite different than using circumstances to justify going against conscience, biblical teaching, or the wise counsel of others.

Maybe you expected me to say that. But it’s not a sign.