The “Rule” of Threes

This is not the post I intended to post today, but something happened that I could never anticipate would affect my blogging. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died. Even when it happened, I didn’t expect to blog about it. My reaction to both pieces of news was, “That’s a pity.” Then I moved on.

Eventually in my moving on, I got to Facebook, where I discovered that two celebrity deaths is not enough. One friend was “weirded out by the three celebrity icons that have passed away recently… Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson.” Then there was ” Wow….I know these things seem to happen in threes, but wow.” and “Hopefully Ed McMahon was recent enough to fulfill the law of threes…” and “It happens in threes. It happens in threes.”

The idea even made the news.

Apparently, not everyone was in agreement that Ed McMahon was sufficient to round out this menage, however. A quick look at Twitter found Jeff Goldblum in the trending topics. Searching turned up a combination of Tweeters debunking and passing on the rumor that Goldblum had died…and plenty of references to the idea that these things happen in threes, an idea that may have contributed to the acceptance of the hoax. (A smaller stream of rumor followed a similar hoax regarding Harrison Ford.)

Let me just say this straight out. These things do not happen in threes, and it takes some weird ways of looking at the world to suggest that they do. Now, we’re wired to look at the world in some pretty weird ways, I admit, but we don’t have to stop there.

A quick current look at Wikipedia’s list of celebrity deaths for yesterday lists a dozen people. Admittedly, many of these celebrities are not anyone my circle of friends would have heard of, as they don’t follow Indian politics or Belgian pop music, but does that mean these people don’t count? How about the other three Americans on the list, two writers and a rock singer. Do they count?

Suppose we decide this “law” only applies somehow to people we’ve heard of (and no, I’m not going to try to figure out how this law knows to restrict itself to action within certain social groups). That favors a menage that includes McMahon. However, Wikipedia tells us that on the day McMahon died, Jerri Nielsen also died, making four instead of three.

But you’ve never heard of Jerri Nielsen, you say? Oh, yes, you have. She’s the doctor who treated herself for breast cancer while trapped at the South Pole over the winter. Her book was a bestseller, and her story inspired both a movie and an episode of House. In the last 10 years, she’s been much bigger news than McMahon and his sweepstakes promotions, even if her death got less attention. Still, we have to set her aside to have our threes.

It should be becoming obvious by now that the rule of threes is a tidy example of confirmation bias, or the fact that our brains are better at arranging, attending to and storing information that supports what we already think than data that contradicts our beliefs. I’m not talking about some form of intellectual dishonesty, but simply the fact that it takes us much less work to recognize something than it does to discover something new and figure out how it fits into the world.

It was, in fact, fascinating to watch how confirmation bias played out in the case of the Facebook friend who was weirded out. Someone suggested to her that David Carradine and Bea Arthur had also died recently. She responded by saying they were both part of the previous three. So I decided to see whether I could figure out who the third person was.

Looking at celebrities who died between Arthur and Carradine, I quickly came upon fantasy author David Eddings, whose death definitely made an impression on her. Aha! I had our three.

Then I found Dom DeLuise, who would have been as much a part of her childhood as he was of mine. DeLuise was Hollywood, so she probably meant him. But counting DeLuise because he was Hollywood means we really shouldn’t overlook Carole Cole, who also died between Arthur and Carradine.

Still, not being able to come up with an obvious three wasn’t the most fun part of my exercise. That was discovering that the two people she’d grouped in the “previous three” had died more than a month apart. Bea Arthur died April 25. David Carradine died June 3. That just wasn’t how she remembered it.

This doesn’t just happen to true believers, either. Even people who were arguing against the idea that things come in threes were compressing time once people had made associations between events. Two people thought McMahon died on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. Time compression in memory happens even among skeptics, which tells us how much work it is to fight confirmation bias.

Bad news happens in threes because we ignore the rest of the bad news. Bad news happens in threes because our memories elide the time in between us hearing about the deaths that shock us. Bad news happens in threes because we pay attention to the times when three things happen instead of two or four or eleven. But bad news doesn’t come in threes because these things always happen in close groups of exactly three like events, even when someone tells you they do.

So the next time you’re feeling weirded out because two bad things have already happened, deal with those instead of worrying about what’s coming next. Something will come, but it will come on its own schedule and may well be good rather than bad. No laws. No rules. Just life.

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31 Responses to “The “Rule” of Threes”

  1. June 26th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    D. Anderson says:

    i suspect that, since there’s more celebrities than ever right now, it’s going to seem like a lot are passing on around the same time; RIP in any case

  2. June 26th, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    will shetterly says:

    I think Sky Saxon got shafted.

  3. June 26th, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    The idea is the same one that led to the fear of the Bermuda Triangle, but a researcher determined that if one were to map out any section of the ocean with the same area, there would be as many “mysterious events.” Within confidential statistical variations, of course.

    Sneezes, I have noticed do come in threes.

  4. June 26th, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Spokker says:

    Wonderful write-up of a fascinating topic. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem where people only consider evidence that supports their world view. As Mike Haubrich explains, it can also lead to superstition which can make people believe irrational things.

    People don’t die in threes. They just die.

  5. June 26th, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    D, I hadn’t considered that. There’s also the role of global media in bringing us the news, too.

    Will, agreed, completely.

    Mike, your sneezes may come in threes. Ben’s come in pairs, and mine come singly.

    Spokker, I wish I’d written that last paragraph.

  6. June 26th, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    becca says:

    The rule of threes is the natural consequence of a phallus-obsessed patriarchal society.

  7. June 26th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Ooh, I wouldn’t say that to the neopagans if I were you. They’ll sic the crone on you.

  8. June 26th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Dan J says:

    I mentioned this over at Almost Diamonds, but thought it might bear repeating here. The “specialness” of the number three has been taught to us as children for decades in many ways. One of these in particular that brings back fond memories for me could be considered evidence of this.

  9. June 26th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Stephanie, my rule holds as long as we don’t lmit the count to a specific timeframe.

  10. June 26th, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Crystal D. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. If someone else mentioned the rule of threes, I was getting ready to give them three swift kicks to their groinal regions… :) I am totally sharing this!!

  11. June 26th, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Victor says:

    It really gets to me when supposedly non-religious people start talking about the rule of three. It’s ludicrous and superstitious.

    I started to theorize about a rule of one once, but eventually abandoned it.

  12. June 26th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Dan, I didn’t remember that video being quite so…wooful. Wow. Yeah, stuff like that definitely doesn’t help.

    Crystal, this post is partly your fault. It was your strong reaction to my offhand “don’t make me come back there” comment that suggested there’d be an audience for this. So thank you.

    Vic, I like the rule of one. That has promise as satire.

  13. June 26th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    becca says:

    Interestingly, it was a (male, gay) neopagan who told me that. Oh the arguments between him and the other (female, lesbian) neopagan I knew, I miss them so.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3_(number)

  14. June 26th, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    There is no way Ed McMahon’s death will count. Goldblum is toast.

  15. June 26th, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I’d much rather it be Ford. I have kind of a thing for tall, geeky guys.

  16. June 26th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    You are wishing Harrison Ford to Die??????? Very questionable.

    How about Bill O’Reilly.. He’s an entertainer.

  17. June 26th, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Entertainer? Depends on who you ask. I’ll give you celebrity, though.

    Just not Jeff Golblum or…no, if you want to know about my other celebrity crushes, you’ll have to ask. Talking about two in one week is already a bit much.

  18. June 26th, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    We can send Rush Limbaugh to the Grim Reaper if you want to keep O’Reilly around for some reason.

  19. June 26th, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I have no objection to either of them disappearing permanently, as long as no human intervention is required. As far as I’m concerned, we can add Sean Hannity for a truly gleesome threesome. In fact, if it were actually a threesome….

  20. June 26th, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    There we go….

    But now we have to find another person to fill the other three spot. Jeesh, if it’s not one thing, it’s another….

  21. June 26th, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    It is a terrible problem to have. Optionally, of course, we could give up on the whole notion of magical threes.

  22. June 26th, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Rob says:

    Actually, if Ann Coulter were to pass on as well, who would explain the world to angry conservatives?

  23. June 26th, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    We can’t give up on threes until we list Ann Coulter with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

  24. June 27th, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Jeremy says:

    @becca: that’s the rule of trees you’re thinking of.

  25. June 27th, 2009 at 1:30 am

    Spokker says:

    I wish there was a rule of fives and Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Rielly were flying around in the Bermuda Pentagon.

  26. June 27th, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Ben Zvan says:

    So you’re saying that things don’t come in threes but can come in twos fours and elevens? Okay, so we have The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost, and … Cliff The Barber?

  27. June 27th, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Ben, Cliff would be appalled by that, I think.

    And from Crystal: http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/3deaths.asp

    Oof.

  28. June 28th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Rob says:

    I didn’t believe in the rule of threes either…until I learned that Billy Mays, the OxiClean guy, just died. It all makes sense now….

  29. June 29th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    catgirl says:

    What about Billy Mays? Does that it make it a rule of fours now?

  30. June 29th, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Well, I did see someone ask who the third pitchman was going to be. McMahon, Mays…?

    Gack.

  31. February 6th, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    lily says:

    I work in an old peoples home and they always go in 3s. If 1 dies 2 more will go in the space of a month and that will be it for a while.

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