Tag Archive: school

(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.

We’ve got a special three-story set for you guys this time. Enjoy. Or don’t. We’re not going to force you.

(Submitted by reader Tracy McFadin)

In 1972 I was driving along a major street in Dallas, TX. and saw two young girls, maybe 17 or 18, hitchhiking (a rather common sight in those days) and stopped to give them a ride.

They were headed to one of the girls’ homes, and said it wasn’t too far from where we were. Having grown up in that area of Dallas myself, I said “Well where is it, because I know this neighborhood?” But the one giving me directions didn’t really know the street names, so she just kept saying “Turn left here, now go a block…take a right” etc. etc.

Well, amazingly, where she ended up directing me to, was the house that I had grown up in for the first 10 years of my life! My family had moved from that house some 11 years earlier.

Of course I was completely blown away by the coincidence, and excitedly was telling them how I had once lived there, and how crazy that was, but they totally thought I was full of it, and that I was making up some wild tale to somehow impress them.

Maybe one of them will read this, and say “Hey! That was me! That is so amazing!” Of course, no one will believe her ; ) …But crazier things have been known to happen.

(Submitted by reader Dave)

I grew up in Moses Lake, WA on the eastern desert side of the state. A couple blocks from us lived one of my best friends Adam. Our families were also close as his dad was our family doctor.

When I was about 5 years old Adam moved away out of state, and shortly after my dad got a job in state government and we moved to the capital Olympia on the other side of the state. Several years later we moved into a new house and I started going to a new school. When I entered my new fifth grade class I recognized a kid but I couldn’t place him. We found out we live a couple blocks away from each other so we started hanging out.

It wasn’t until our parents met and remembered each other that we found out that Adam and his family had settled in a new house the same distance from ours as our houses were back in Moses Lake!  What are the odds?

 (Submitted by reader R L Fletcher)

I was driving my grandchildren back home to Birmingham, AL after a week long visit at our home in a suburb of Dallas, TX.  About 200 miles into the 650 mile journey, we stopped at a Starbucks in Shreveport so the grandson and granddaughter could use the restroom and I could grab a cup of joe.

As we were walking back to my car, someone yelled out my grandson’s name. It was my wife’s brother and his wife! Unbeknownst to me they were driving from their home south of Dallas to Chattanooga, TN, and we just happened to cross paths at that Starbucks!

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 189. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I don’t find the first story remarkable at all, although I am sure it felt that way to the author. While a lot of houses fit in a reasonable radius for hitchhiking, they number in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands and the author probably frequented the area.
The second story is eerie, but it would be more impressive if the distance both families moved was much greater.
The third story seems less coincidental, given that there are a limited number of routes between major cities, but there is an additional element which makes it much less likely to occur: timing. A Starbucks pit stop is very short, so crossing paths there is indeed crazy odds.

Meeting Roots

(Submitted by reader Chris C)

My best coincidence experience was when I was sitting in a staff meeting (group supervision for a psychological clinic that I was working at) and all five of the people in the meeting had lived, at one time or another in their life, in Lawrence, Massachusetts — including myself.  This was a clinic in Irvine, California.  We had all known each other for some time, were all students of the school, had enrolled at different times in life, had moved to California at different times and for different reasons, and it just happened to surface while sitting around chatting.

Double Down on Old Friends

(Submitted by reader Deborah Warcken)

My Volkswagen squareback died in Evanston, Wyoming on its third trip to Colorado in February of 1972. From there G’Anna and I had to take the bus to Greeley where we stayed in my dorm from the previous school year. I had decided that Colorado winters were not for me and had retreated back to California to old friends and my horse. G’Anna was a new friend and had agreed to accompany me on a visit back during February break. I had several friends I wanted to see as well as a sister who had moved to Greeley the previous year. G’Anna had two friends in the Gunnison-Crested Butte area.

It was wonderful to see my friends from freshman year and visit with my sister and her family. I was disappointed because one of my best friends was no longer in school there. It was rumored that she had either returned to Ohio or was going to school elsewhere.

After our stay in Greeley we were able to rent a car and continue south and west to our next destination. This already had the makings of something of an adventure as G’Anna did not have an address or phone number for her two friends, Bill and Dirk. She said we would just have to hit all the local night spots and ask around at the ski area.

We arrived in Gunnison an hour or so before dark and started checking around. No one seemed to know her friends. It was suggested that we try up in Crested Butte so we drove up there and continued to check in the local hang-outs. Crested Butte is (or was) a small ski town and it was crawling with young people.

It was getting late and we’d just asked at the last bar in the village. All these places were fairly dark and this one was no exception. As we were heading for the door we passed some people coming in. It was too dark to see them clearly but something about one of them was familiar. After we got outside I had to turn and go back in to see if my sense was correct. It was! One of the people turned out to be my friend Laura who was supposed to be in Ohio.

I’m not sure which of us was more surprised, me, Laura or G’Anna. As we still had not found or even looked for a place to stay that night Laura let us stay with her. We decided to continue searching for Bill and Dirk the next day.

The following morning we went up to the ski area to continue our quest. Laura had to go to work at a little cafe but we said we’d stop back later and have some pie and say “goodbye”. G’Anna’s friends did not seem to be at the ski area so we made one last trip into Gunnison to look around in the daytime. No luck.

About mid-morning we stopped in and had some heavenly raspberry cream pie at the café and said goodbye and thank you to Laura. We started on our way out of town and were at the last stop sign before the beginning of the highway back to Gunnison. As we waited at the stop sign a car pulled forward from the other side and stopped to let out two hitchhikers in the middle of the intersection. You may have figured out already that these were none other than Bill and Dirk.