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Thursday, August 20, 2015

coincidence and crime 2

To return to my last coincidence post:
Nabokov played around with the coincidence device himself, in his novel, Despair. There, the hero, a prosperous businessman named Hermann, mistakenly supposes that he looks like a certain much poorer man. Hermann befriends this man on behalf of a plot to make make money and get out of a relationship with his cheating wife. The plot involves getting the double to dress as Hermann and then killing him. After this, the life insurance money will come rolling in, and Hermann can collect it. Hermann, then, is very much writing the “plot” for his characters, and banking on a coincidence. But what he doesn’t reckon on is his own blindspot with regard to what he looks like. There’s a character in a Turgenev story who says, somewhere, that he can keep a sharp mental image of strangers, but more familiar faces, including his own, never fix themselves in his imaginagtion. Hermann seems to be in a similar case – in fact, nobody else thinks his double looks like Hermann. Thus, the coincidence by which the murderer hopes to make his escape ends up being no coincidence at all – which is a very funny variation on the coincidence plot.
An Israeli sociologist, Ruma Falk, has made a career long study of coincidence stories. Like a disillusioned Hermann, Falk claims to have shown that our coincidence stories often depend on obtaining a statistically significant result from a deliberately chosen extreme example instead of basing that conclusion on a random sample”. The emphasis here on the random sample indicates the frequentist bias of Falk’s work – but at the same time, what really interests here is a cognitive property – the “surprising” effect of the coincidence. If Hermann had interviewed other candidates for doppelganger, or consulted his friends, he might well have found someone who, according to consensus, looked like him – which would of course be a coincidence, but one founded in the pool of types, cultural and genetic, in which Hermann existed, like some dictator looking for a body double to use as a security measure. But Hermann didn’t, because the coincidence surprised him to the extent that he didn’t question it.
Falk, then, looked at the element of surprise in coincidence stories. They divide stories of coincidence taken from a pool of subjects between self-coincidence and other-coincidence. They asked their subjects to judge the degree of surprise elicited by these stories – that is, stories the subject told about his or her experience, and stories the subject read about others’ experiences. “On the average, authors judged their self-coincidences somewhat more surprising than they judged others’ coincidences. However, the mean rating of the control subjects revealed that the other-stories were objectively more surprising than the self-stories. Taken together, authors found their own coincidences more surprising than others’ coincidences despite the fact that the latter were objectively more surprising.”
This is a complex response, no? One might speculate that the surprisingness of coincidence operates in more important ways in ordinary life than it is given credit for. At least, in listening to people talk about their lives, and about accidents that have befallen them, I get the sense that coincidence operates as a sort of guiding shadow to making sense of the incidents in a life - making the life seem fated, necessary, telic.

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