What do you recall as your life’s most important events? Were they the ones you planned, or did they seem to occur entirely due to luck, accident, or coincidence?
Everyone can tell at least one story in which something either really great or really terrible happened without warning. As you think about such an experience from your past, how did you eventually come to interpret that event? Did you regard it as fate? Did you feel that it fit into some higher purpose?
Perhaps you decided to go from one room in your home to another, juggling a coffee cup, laptop, and phone. As much as you tried to hold onto it, the cup slipped out of your hand, causing you to lose your balance. Down you go, twisting your ankle painfully beneath you. Several hours later, you’re in a cast, relegated for the next few weeks to using crutches until the ankle heals.
You may see some hidden meaning in all of this. Maybe while you were at the medical facility waiting to have your ankle tended to, the person next to you in the waiting room turned out to be a friend of a long-lost friend. Inspired to reconnect, you get back in touch, a step you otherwise wouldn’t have taken. Did fate lead you back to this person who had once been so important to you?
The Two Factors That Influence Perception of Chance
The random occurrences in life can happen at any place and any way. Their very unpredictability, University of Oslo’s Karl Teigen and Alf Brre Kanten (2022) proposed, gave them a highly aversive quality. People prefer to know what’s in store for them, as “non-random events bring stability and order into our lives.” It’s why you pay so much attention to information about weather forecasts and the traffic conditions before your morning commute. The desire for predictions even extends to researchers who “are biased by their commitment to predictions and causal explanations and hence are hesitant to open the Pandora’s box of chance events” (p. 3).
Perhaps this need to impose order onto chaos leads people to inject meaning into the zig-zag nature of real-life events. An injured ankle must be, you want to believe, the result of some grand design to get you back together with an old buddy. As you think back on the series of events and experiences that make up your life, how many of these meanings have you already used to come up with some type of cohesive story? Just as importantly, what made them seem random in the first place?
Although this might seem like an obvious question, according to the Norwegian team, events most likely to seem random occur suddenly or “out of the blue.” Timing also matters. Teigen and Kanten maintained that beginnings should seem more influenced by chance than endings.
Testing these factors in a series of seven experiments (on online and undergraduate samples), the authors devised scenarios varying in both suddenness and timing. Looking first at the timing, here is one of their test stimuli:
Imagine you are told about two female students Evy and Ellen, who have been friends for several years. Which of these two statements seems more likely?
a. It was quite accidental that Evy and Ellen became friends.
b. It was not accidental that Evy and Ellen became friends.
Which did you pick? If you chose (a), you scored the same as 61 percent of the sample, supporting the idea that an event’s beginning seems to result from chance.
Now, read the rest of the scenario:
Evy and Ellen aren’t friends any more. Which of these two statements seems more likely?
a. It was quite accidental that the friendship came to an end.
b. It was not accidental that the friendship came to an end.
Would it surprise you to learn that the vast majority (81 percent) chose (b)? Remember, no reason was given for the ending of the friendship. Yet people, and perhaps you too, see endings as evolving out of beginnings even if chance could have played a role in affecting the outcome. Maybe Evy suffered a terrible accident, and the ending had nothing to do with their relationship.
Adding suddenness to the equation, the Norwegian researchers next asked people to judge the likelihood of comparisons such as this:
Which of these statements do you think is about a career that began rather suddenly?
a. My career as a tech consultant began purely by chance.
b. My career as a tech consultant did not begin by chance.
It’s likely, based on the study’s findings, that you would regard chance as the cause, given that 75 percent of the sample chose alternative (a). That sudden beginning might, you infer, be the result of a lucky break.
Seven Facts to Consider as You Rethink Your Life’s Trajectory
These two factors of suddenness and timing were at the essence of the U. Oslo study, but along the way, the authors also provided other intriguing facts that can help you view your own life experiences from a new perspective:
Fact 1: Endings don’t seem to happen by chance, but beginnings do.
Beginnings seem to be responsible for the events that follow, but when something ends, you think you know what preceded it, leading you to miss the influence of possible randomness.
Fact 2: Beginnings seem due to chance because they are more noteworthy than endings.
Beginnings tend to draw your attention more than endings, which could also contribute to your perception that they occur by chance.
Fact 3: There’s a difference between luck and coincidence.
When an event occurs for no reason, you’ll be more likely to regard it as being a coincidence if it isn’t very important. Though potentially a coincidence of wrong place, wrong time, the injury to your ankle will be attributed to bad luck because of its significance.
Fact 4: You can gain important knowledge without even trying.
This is a great observation. Think about how many of your skills you’ve picked up by accident. Maybe you happened to chat with someone who gave you a valuable pointer about how to solve an annoying household problem. Chance can work in your favor in unexpected ways.
Fact 5: Sometimes chance is just plain fun.
Not only is chance occasionally educational, but it can also be fun. Although people generally dislike randomness, the authors also point out that “chance can also be hedonically attractive.” Why else would people watch sports?
Fact 6: Maybe it’s not chance or even luck after all.
Thinking back on your injured ankle, it may have seemed like bad luck to you, but it’s possible that it was “probable” given your level of distraction by all the things you were carrying. Maybe chance beginnings are just the continuation of ongoing patterns that already exist.
Fact 7: People prefer thinking about life transitions in terms of beginnings.
Reinforcing this last point, the U. Oslo researchers discovered in one of their experiments that, when given a choice, people prefer to think about life as a series of new chapters rather than as continuous patterns.
Are You Ready to Rethink Chance in Your Life?
As Teigen and Kanten point out, “all events have causes and are situated meaningfully in their own web of relations,” some random and some not. However, because it’s so easy to think in terms of chunks than transitions (Fact 7), it’s worthwhile to take a step back and look for the broader themes that drive your own life’s patterns.
For this thought experiment, begin with events that seem to arise by chance but instead reflect some other underlying process, the “unplanned social interactions in the history of an individual” that can “determine their life trajectories” (p. 4, citing Bandura, 1982). You’re walking down the street and turn right rather than left. Lo and behold, you meet the love of your life, which led to your starting a family, and so on and so on.
Before you let this realization lead you to question literally every step you ever take, look for some of those larger patterns. Why did you turn right rather than left? Was there something on the right that caught your interest? Perhaps you were headed to your favorite music store, or maybe you just liked the scenery. Whatever drew you in that direction might also have attracted that love of your life.
Similarly, think back on that tech employee who seemed to get the job by chance. Isn’t it possible that something led them to gain the necessary education, which also happened to qualify them for the position? Has that ever happened to you?
To sum up, before you let the occasional coincidence or luck sway you into thinking that all of life is a series of chance occurrences, seeing the underlying logic to your life’s direction can help give it both greater meaning and fulfillment.