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Should serendipity play a role in our decision making?

*Originally published in the Globe and Mail*

greg rakozy c/o Unsplash

 

This particular meeting of the Serendipity Society begins the way most meetings do: a round of re-introductions, knowing smiles, and recounting recent travels and milestones. In 2019, the society held its first international conference in London. Since then, it has held multiple topic-themed symposiums, and this one was highly technical: recommendation algorithms (the sort that Netflix may use to suggest other programs you might enjoy).

Two members realized they had vacationed in the same spot, though I was assured it was merely coincidence, not serendipity. Only one unfamiliar face was present: mine. I was there upon the invitation of Stephann Makri, senior lecturer and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Design Program at City University of London.

For the past 15 years, Dr. Makri has been hunting for the recipe for serendipity, which he defines as an “unexpected circumstance that yields valuable or unanticipated outcomes.” His research focus is on serendipity in digital landscapes, which can affect our use of social media. Dr. Makri has also described strategies for creating serendipity: In 2013, his SerenA project looked more deeply into how serendipity can be engineered in digital spaces, which can present a paradox.

“The more you try to engineer serendipity, for example through a recommender-system algorithm, the more you might start to expect the unexpected. If that happens, the outcome may not have the same weight, or gravitas, to you any more. There’s a risk serendipity can become an experience that feels contrived,” he tells me in an interview.

Established five years ago, the Serendipity Society is comprised of cognitive scientists, philosophers, computer engineers, physicists and so forth. The members meet regularly several times a year to interrogate the phenomenon of serendipity, and how it plays a role in how we understand and shape our futures, whether it be in our personal lives (they have collected stories of romantic partnerships that appear to be the result of serendipity, for instance) or in scientific discoveries.

Serendipity in scientific research is common: Louis Pasteur was once quoted as saying luck “favours only the prepared mind.” Penicillin was discovered in 1928 because Alexander Fleming was researching the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. One of his petri dishes became contaminated with a mould that had antibacterial properties (Penicillium notatum), creating a circle on the glass. Sildenafil (Viagra) was discovered by Pfizer in 1989 during research for anti-hypertensive and anti-angina (chest pain) treatments.

The question of how exactly serendipity can be advantageous in scientific discovery was explored in 1958 in a paper by two sociologists, Bernard Barber and Reneé Fox. Barber and Fox analyzed two separate experiments involving rabbits and the enzyme papain, which is derived from the papaya fruit. Both would find the same result, but only one used the experience to make a serendipitous discovery that would go on to have a world-changing impact on both medicine and industry.

In 1956, Lewis Thomas, a physician and researcher in the department of medicine at New York University, conducted a lab demonstration to show that lesions in cardiac and blood vessels could be due to the presence of various enzymes in the body. He injected rabbits’ ears with papain, which caused the ears to wilt and become floppy. He would eventually discover that papain caused the ear cartilage to lose a large part of its intracellular matrix and that it was, in effect, dissolving the bonds between proteins. Eventually, this property would lead to the discovery of various commercial applications for papain, including the production of leather goods, detergents and cosmetics, and the process of meat tenderization.

Aaron Kellner, a professor in the department of pathology at Cornell University, had actually observed the same effect when injecting rabbits’ ears with papain in a 1954 experiment, but he was not as interested in the result and pursued other pressing research questions instead (eventually, his other work led to the creation of a reliable blood transfusion network for New York State). As Barber and Fox described it, a key element that drove Thomas’s interest in papain (other than having the time to explore) was having reached an impasse on other research projects, which allowed his pursuit of the serendipitous discovery. He had remained obsessed with his observations, analyzing them until they led to a formal discovery that had a purpose. Indeed, serendipity can occur at the intersection of “chance and wisdom.”

 

Adrian Bejan, a Duke University-based mechanical engineering professor, has possibly the most “rational” definition of serendipity. It’s “the way to make discoveries, by accident but also by sagacity, of things one is not in quest of. Based on experience, knowledge, it is the creative exploitation of the unforeseen.” Dr. Bejan, who is a prolific researcher and scholar with a lengthy publication record, likely experiences this firsthand on a regular basis. But what about outside of science – what do serendipitous encounters actually “mean,” especially as they relate to making decisions?


When I met a stranger on a train in England two years ago, he shifted my views on serendipity. We were both on our way to the English Midlands, and the car we were seated in was sparsely populated. My stop was first. A few hours later, I grabbed the return train, which ran every 30 minutes. The same stranger was on this train, which was now packed with commuters going back to King’s Cross Station in London. As I was departing the crowded train, I became caught in the door between cars as it closed and felt someone behind me pull it open. Indeed, it was the same man. I mumbled “Thank you,” and rushed off to my next commitment.

But just before going through the turnstile to catch the underground train, I realized how unusual it was to see the same stranger twice in one day, and for that same person to be the one to pull a crushing door open for me. So I went back up and thought I would at least thank him if he happened to be there. Indeed, he was, and so I did. Smiling, he asked if I had been on the train earlier in the morning, and he suggested we meet a few days later. He was willing to come to my area, and cancelled a previous commitment to go to Cambridge in order to do so.

We met at a pub and enjoyed a nice chat, but to me it wasn’t particularly eventful or with consequence. At some level, the encounter had created a sense of wonder and expectation – the latter of which wasn’t quite met.

So if serendipity gives us a sense of “meaning,” why did this feel like such a letdown? Surely, the statistically improbable alignment of our meeting must have been for a reason, if we are to believe in the chance meet-cutes of films like 2001′s Serendipity.


In 1754, a British aristocrat named Horace Walpole wrote a letter in which he coined the term “serendip.” The letter referenced a story that was translated from Persian to Italian and finally to English – a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. The tale involved a camel and three brothers who experience a series of “happy accidents.” Walpole referred to this phenomenon as “serendipity.” The emphasis was on the feeling it exudes – a sense of joy or wonder, but also another thing: gravitas, a sense that it was all for something greater.

The coronavirus pandemic, above all, has taught us that the future is hard to predict. We still are unable to plan as well as we might like. But what does this mean for serendipitous encounters? Does the feeling we get when we experience serendipity suggest at some level that the future is predetermined by some mystical force? Anxiety as a disorder involves a pathologically negative stand around our futures (i.e. worst-case scenarios), so perhaps the experience of serendipity offsets this. A sense of the predetermined can offer us some comfort when the ability to forecast is reduced.

Christian Busch, a professor at New York University and the author of The Serendipity Mindset (which offers strategies on how to set ourselves up to experience serendipity more often – namely through creating a “serendipity field”), believes we can indeed lean on it to help in uncertain times.

As such, serendipity, or the perception of it, and the weight or gravitas we give it, alleviates some of this anxiety by giving us the sense that the future may be predetermined at some level, allowing serendipitous encounters, such as the one I experienced on the train, to provide momentary glimpses into that very future.

“Often, elements of happenstance can really elevate the sense of weight you might put onto a situation, because it seems so implausible,” Dr. Makri says. “Important events that happen through happenstance are so rare that we might attribute more meaning to them.”

But after my experience on the train, I’m left wondering if serendipity may just be an extension of the story Walpole once referenced: simply a fairy tale, but the adult version. Something to hold onto to make us believe in predestination, or a deus ex machina rescue from a potentially less desirable fate.

Instead, perhaps we should approach serendipity as “data points,” removing the gravitas we allocate to it. If every other element of a person or situation doesn’t feel quite right, a serendipitous moment involving a person or situation should not hold the weight it does, in terms of affecting decisions. In other words, we should first decide to be either a Lewis Thomas or an Aaron Kellner – Kellner didn’t allocate gravitas to his findings and still lived an accomplished life via another path. However, if the rational and emotional elements align, we can view serendipity as a spiritual or chance element that can add that potent gravitas to a decision that already feels fairly right for us, especially decisions that involve a person, place or situation where some uncertainty exists. Perhaps its role is to bring us comfort and ease remaining doubts.

In his book Fluke, mathematician Joseph Mazur argues that what we often presume to be serendipity is merely attributable to the “weak law of large numbers,” a theory first formalized by 17th-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli. Effectively, a small chance is still a chance if the occurrence were to occur several times. This understanding can help us remove the gravitas we allocate to serendipity, and see it more objectively within a wider context of information.

The idea that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” as made famous by Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, is seductive, even to the most ardent skeptic. But placing excessive gravitas on serendipity ends up creating a form of bias that can in fact blind us to other, more suitable paths, leading us astray from the very destiny we’re better suited for. Given that we rarely have access to the counterfactual of our lives, we cannot possibly know whether a circumstance is serendipitous or not. Instead, the human tendency toward apophenia may in fact be at play. For instance, it’s a charming idea to know that even the Old Persian word serendip is a precursor to the Arabic word Serendib, another name for Sri Lanka (where my parents hail from).

Dr. Makri believes we can reconcile this dilemma with awareness, yielding the uplifting and charming feeling from the experience of serendipity as an intrinsic benefit in itself, but without necessarily feeling as though the moment needs to be excessively influential in our decisions.

“If serendipity involves making meaning through connection building, then that’s how you can help to shape your own future – by making as many meaningful connections as you can. But you have to be agile in how you respond to fast-moving situations, because otherwise the opportunity may pass you by,” Dr. Makri says. “When serendipitous events happen in life, their comforting nature can uplift us in a way that breaks the monotony in our more mundane parts of life.”

Written by Amitha


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