Monday, September 01, 2008

Coincidence

I admit it. Sometimes I take completely separate incidents and assume they are related due merely to their coincidence. The results are mixed.

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A number of years ago, I worked at a company where the owner regularly brought her dog in to work. He was an adorable dachshund that was introduced to all new employees (and all visiting clients) with a warning -- "Keep your food out of reach!"

Like a little security guard, Cutter would make daily rounds. However, instead of patrolling the outside of the building, he scoured the inside perimeter along the walls and under desks. You could tell if someone had had yogurt that day if you saw Cutter walking around with a creamy ring around his yogurt-container-sized muzzle.

One morning, I brought in a homemade cinnamon roll wrapped in tin-foil. As I prepared to head out at noon I quickly glanced over my desk -- next to my keyboard was my much-anticipated after-lunch snack. Next to that was a document my manager had mentioned he wanted to borrow while I was at lunch.

When I returned to my office, I noticed two things. As expected, the document was gone. But strangely, the tin-foiled package had been unwrapped -- my cinnamon roll was gone as well. My first thought? "Why would my manager also take my cinnamon roll?"

It took me only a few more seconds to unwrap my faulty logic. But I was surprised by how my mind seemed to automatically look for a connection between those two incidents.

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According to Josh Tenenbaum, an MIT cognitive scientist, our minds are wired to notice coincidence and for good reason. Quoted in a July/August issue of Psychology Today, he explains:
"Coincidences drive so many of the inferences our minds make. Our neural circuitry is set up to notice these anomalies and use them to drive new learning."
Co-authors Tom Griffith and Josh Tenenbaum begin the paper "From mere coincidence to meaningful discoveries" with two examples of individuals noticing a coincidence and assuming causality. In the first example, the assumption led to an important scientific discovery (cholera is spread via contaminated water). The assumption made in the second example was just plain incorrect.

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This makes me feel better. At least a tiny, little bit.

1 comment:

Alda said...

Too funny that you thought your manager had taken it!!!

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