Tag Archive: College

(Submitted by reader Jim Houston)

A few years after graduating from college in upstate New York, I returned to where I grew up in Pennsylvania and found a job about 20 miles away  from my hometown. The job wasn’t related to my major in Physics, but computer programming was something that was a bit more portable, and within a few months, I was asked to find other programmers for the project team.

Sifting through stacks of résumés is an exercise in looking for familiar experiences that would suggest someone can do the job you need done, so one morning I see a résumé that looks so familiar I could have written it myself. I realized as I read it that I must know this guy and so decided right away to call him in for an interview. He went to the same college as I, graduated the same year, and in the same major.  There were about 100 of us freshmen in the department and we all took the same intro courses for the first two years.  While 100 classmates is not a large group, I  may not have known many of their names, but usually recognized them if we passed each other in the halls.  So that I couldn’t place the  interviewee from the name on the resume didn’t strike me as unusual.

When my classmate walked in for the interview, I felt that I had never ever seen this guy before.  It was so unlikely that we could be in the same classes and not have recognized each other, that we actually spent a fair amount of time in the initial chat comparing notes on where we lived, who our professors were, who we knew etc…  Freshman year, he lived one dorm over in a complex of about 2000 students.  The next year, we both moved up to the newer North Campus dorms and again lived a couple of dorms apart, and for the remaining two years we both lived in apartments that were about three blocks from each other.

It turned out that we probably didn’t take classes together because we were six months out of sync on the prerequisites, but largely knew the same people and had the same professors.

What came next floored me. He not only grew up his entire life in my hometown, but I discovered he lived two streets away from where I had lived my entire life up to that point.  He had gone to a different school system and was on the other side of a major street that I had rarely crossed. He was as convinced as I was that even if we had somehow crossed paths, we had never seen each other before.

So when people bring up stories of chance encounters that demonstrate what a small world it is, I like to bring up my counter story of what a BIG world it is. For twenty years, I lived within two hundred yards of a person with very similar interests, went to many of the same playgrounds, stores, and parks and yet were still complete strangers.

(For the statistically inclined, college size was 16,000 students. Class sizes were about 40 people. The population density of my hometown is 15,000 people per square mile. The number of people who lived on the two streets in question is about 250. The rest is an exercise for the reader 🙂

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 201. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I love this story. There is, of course, nothing shocking about the coincidences except that the men did not remember each other at all. This should not be the case given the size of the school and the proximity of their childhood homes. And yet it is not surprising at all to me as a psychologist who has studied attention and memory.

The fact of the matter is that the author almost certainly interacted with the interviewee many times and simply did not notice or remember him. It is even more interesting that neither noticed the other while they were in college. I would expect at least that “I know you, don’t I?” feeling.

We all probably encounter many of the same strangers often, but without an interaction that is out of the ordinary, we don’t even encode their faces. If human beings were not so selective, we would be unable to function as we would need to sort through enormous amounts of information on a constant basis. Instead, we encode what we think might be important later and store it as connections to other bits of information.

To see this for yourself, try to draw the heads side of a penny–right now, without looking at one.  You have seen hundreds in your lifetime and you can probably recreate the gist of the coin and some of the details, but do you know where to put everything? Did you draw something that is actually on the tails side? Is the date in the right place? Which direction is Lincoln looking?

For some fun and interesting demonstrations of selective attention and memory, I highly recommend “The Invisible Gorilla” by Daniel Simons, a psychologist who has studied this phenomena.

(Submitted by reader Cathy Smith)

My best friend in Jr. High was Lisa Butland.  We were both Air Force brats, stationed in Germany at the time.  By the time we graduated high school, our families were transferred to Texas, hers to Austin, and mine to San Antonio.  Afterwards, I moved to California, and we completely lost touch with one another.

Over ten years later I was back in San Antonio, and my boyfriend lived at the German House Co-Op, by the University of Texas campus.  One of the residents, Mark, looked vaguely familiar to me, but it took me a few visits to figure out why.  The kid with the Coke bottle glasses he reminded me of was only about twelve years old the last time I saw him.  As soon as I realized who he might be, I knocked on his bedroom door.

“Mark?” I peeked my head in the door.  The room was dark because the shades were still drawn.  Mark was in the top bunk, and his eyes were squinting because he did not have his glasses on yet.

“Yes?”  he said.

“Did you ever live in Germany?” I asked.

“Yes?”  he responded looking puzzled.

“Was your dad stationed at Hahn Air Force Base?”  I asked with a big smile.

He hesitated.  “Yes?”

“Is your last name Butland?”  I was getting excited.

“Yes?”  He sounded slightly disturbed.

“Do you have a sister named Lisa?”  I continued.  He obviously could not see the expression on my face.

He looked a little worried.  “Yes?”

“Do you remember a Cathy Sexton?”  I asked.

At this point, his eyes opened as wide as they could.  He took a big gasp of air and in an astonished voice exclaimed:  “You know Cathy Sexton?!!”

That was about twenty years ago.  As soon as he realized that I was Cathy Sexton, he gave me his sister’s number, and Lisa and I have been best friends ever since.

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 200. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I’m sure that you can guess what I’ll say about this one: it’s not so surprising, but it’s interesting nonetheless!

The most common coincidence stories seem to be related to meeting people with whom they had a past connection. They are very significant to the people who experience them, but the truth is that they are less interesting statistically than one might think.This case is no different; she met the brother of her long-lost friend not far from where she left them and they were probably close in age and socioeconomic status, increasing the probability of frequenting the same places.  As often is the case, I find the story about how they discovered the connection more interesting than the connection itself.
The majority of stories are either about someone the author clearly recognized or a conversation which leads them to realize that there is some deep personal connection, usually geographical. I have rarely heard stories in which the author’s memory is jogged after a few exposures to an individual.
We all meet people who seem very familiar and sometimes it takes us some time to put our finger on why. This is so common that it was used as a plot device (ever see the movie “The Arrival”?). But the vast majority of those cases involve a distinctive feature or mannerism which is shared by someone we know well rather than a person we have actually met before. For example, everyone with an underbite reminds me of a cousin I was close to while growing up.
But the fact that the author eventually figured it out and acted on it (and that it turned out to be someone she actually knew) makes this story unusual.

(Submitted by reader Bethany G)

I lived in California and went to college, and lived in a small residence of 50 people down the hall from a Japanese student.

About 15 years later I went to Tokyo, and was walking down the subway platform of one of the numerous subway systems in Tokyo, and I literally bumped into him. We were both utterly, utterly astonished that this could happen in a city of 30 million people. I had lost touch with him until then, and actually hadn’t even expected to be in Tokyo at that time, let alone bump into someone I had lived two doors down the hall from for three years in college.

Updated 5/8/2012

Below are the exact notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 182. Take a look and leave your comments below.

Well, it seems that the odds of this happening would be two in 30 million (and it’s a great title for the post), but they really aren’t. Here are some monkey wrenches in that estimate:

  • The odds of running into someone and that person being from that residence hall are 50 times the odds of it being any specific person.
  • The odds of someone from Japan returning to Japan after college are relatively high compared to the odds of students from other countries returning home.
  • Normally, the odds of running into someone you knew is higher than one expects because the fact that you once knew them means that you shared some values or habits of some kind, which increases the probability that one can be found in a given location. However, in this case, the subway is an extremely common mode of travel in Tokyo, so the location is not as influential.
  • The odds of this event occurring at some point also rely on how long the author was in Tokyo, how active she was during that time, how active the friend was during that time, etc.

This story is comparable to the other stories of running into people, like mine. They seem like
stories of fate, but they would really only be astonishing if we predicted them – details intact.