Roy Cleveland Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times. (He actually claims eight, but seven are documented.) Later in life, people began to shun him during thunderstorms, for obvious reasons. Or, perhaps, for obvious feelings. Were these people being reasonable? Would you have stood next to Roy during a thunderstorm?
Imagine how you would feel if your alarm only failed to go off when it really mattered. Or if you could never find a parking spot when you were in a rush. Or if you got dumped on the same day you were sick and got fired. And how did you get sick? You got a flat tire, your phone died right at that moment, you had to walk to find a pay phone—and then it started raining.
Gleb Tsipursky Ph.D. is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism – for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com (link is external). He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make wise decisions and reach their goals
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Is it bad karma? Terrible luck? A curse? The universe out to get you? Which is more likely—that these are all coincidences or that they aren’t coincidences?
Let’s check: There are 7 billion people on earth. So every day, people live 7 billion different days. One of these 7 billion days has to be the most improbable of the bunch, a day so improbable it only happens once out of every 7 billion days lived.
To put that in perspective, there are about 30,000 days in the life of a 90-year-old. One of those days will be the most improbable of the 30,000—a day so improbable it only happens once in 90 years. But that’s nothing compared to a one-in-seven-billion kind of day, and one of those happens every single day. It’s a day more improbable than the craziest day of your life, more improbable than the craziest day in the life of anyone you know. Consider: If 200,000 people lived to be 90 years old, only one of them would have a day this improbable. And yet, it happens once a day, somewhere on Earth. It's like winning the Weird Lottery.
You have to feel sorry for that one person. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, life conspires against her and blows her mind with how ridiculously, impossibly bad—or great—a day can get. Nobody she talks with has ever had something similar happen to them. Some people think she's being punished for being a bad person, so they avoid her. How would this scenario make you feel? Would you realize it could all just be chance?
If more than chance is at play, maybe these days happen more than they’re supposed to. If 700,000 people a day have a one-in-10,000 kind of day, we might say that’s just what chance would predict, but if we get more than that, we might say that it can’t be just chance.
Does that seem strange? Imagine a six-sided die. Generally, it should roll a 3 about one out of six times. If instead, we got a 3 five out of six times, we’d know that it wasn’t just chance. But if we rolled the die 100 times, and never got a 3, we’d be suspicious then, too. If we rolled it another 1,000 times, and still never got a 3, we’d know that something more than chance was at play: The die was probably loaded not to land on 3.
If coincidences happen more than it seems they should, or less than they should, we can assume that it’s not just chance—something else is in play.
But we can’t just point to any coincidence and say, “Look! It's proof that there’s a conspiracy!” because it very well might be the result of just chance.
Sometimes, surviving a disease is a one-in-a-million chance. But that means that it is going to happen one out of those million times. We wouldn’t point to that and say that destiny saved that person: One of those million people is supposed to get better.
This should all make us question testimonials about miracle cures that purportedly occur due to prayer or other spiritual intervention. After all, we don’t get to see the millions who prayed and didn’t get cured; we only hear about the one case where someone prayed and did got better. But was it due to prayer or due to chance?
Most doctors never get a one-in-a million cure. If they do, they might think destiny is intervening. But doctors don’t know everything (in fact, doctors’ grasp of probability is surprisingly poor). And now you know better than them.
The next time something incredible happens to you, remember: Life is allowed (occasionally) to be crazy. Life is sometimes supposed to be crazy. You'll have a one-in-a-thousand day every few years. And the next time you hear about something incredible happening to someone else, remember that one-in-a-million days happen 7,000 times a day, somewhere in the world. Is it destiny? Karma? Aliens? Time travelers? Maybe, but it might just be chance.
Learn to look at the improbable and say “maybe” to its face. And if your friend is ever struck seven (or eight) times by lightning, maybe you’ll know not to think they’re a bad person.