The only thing getting my editor through an especially awful week is the rule of three. Her first brush with bad luck happened bright and early on Monday, when a pigeon broke into our office and pooped on her head, point blank. Then she came home to no WiFi or cable and was stood up for a breakfast meeting the next morning. But when she finally hit that crappy-event threshold of unlucky number three, she felt…calm. Like, she had fulfilled the terms of her sentencing and was once again free to live her life unencumbered by the negative will of the universe, all thanks to the ever-so-unscientific rule of three.
Often, the rule of three is connected to death—celebrity death, in particular—and understanding the principle in this specific scope can be helpful for its applications elsewhere. Upon deeper thought though, I realized the rule itself is inherently flawed because of its totally subjective parameters in both timeline and definition. For instance, are we counting deaths that happen by the end of the week? Month? Year? Furthermore, not everyone is looking toward the same three “celebrities”; the people who are mourning Doris Day aren’t necessarily mourning Grumpy Cat, y’know?
But despite matters of life and death and goings-on beyond our control being very random on a macro level, assigning them a pattern of sorts to govern them helps us cope. This assigned significance even has a name: apophenia. “Apophenia is an error of perception: The tendency to interpret random patterns as meaningful,” anthropologist John W. Hoopes, PhD, writes in Psychology Today. Theoretically, this principle can be applied to any number things, including superstitions and gambling.
Despite matters of life and death and goings-on beyond our control being very random on a macro level, assigning them a pattern of sorts to govern them helps us cope.
So while things likely don’t actually happen in threes, embracing the superstition can still help you channel Zen vibes while you expect the worst…and feel relief once you believe the series of unfortunate events is “over.” Why is that, though—why three?
“There was an episode of Sherlock where he planted four listening devices near a suspect because he knew that the suspect would stop looking after three,” says Chicago-based clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Sherlock realized that the number three has a certain power.” And it seems society at large has, for many, many years, also accepted three to be a magic number of sorts.
“We have all of these cultural memories, from ancient religion to Netflix, in which the number is presented as powerful and ‘complete.’ The three Fates complete a lifetime. Two parents and a child are, traditionally, the smallest complete family. A fear of the number three is called triphobia or triskaphobia.” Furthermore, holy trinities have popped up in mythology and religion since the dawn of time. (In Christianity, for example, it’s the father, the son, and the holy spirit). We’ve seen so many examples of three that it makes sense for it to provide some comfort, even if subconsciously.
It ultimately doesn’t matter whether things actually happen in threes or not, because we’re programed to think they do. And if that provides a sense of calmness and completeness, take it and ask no questions. If you’ve gotten through your three daily, weekly, or monthly tragedies, fingers crossed that you’re done—but even there’s a fourth disaster on the way, at least you’re starting to feel better.
BTW, this is why we’re superstitious about black cats, broken mirrors, and all those other emblems of bad luck. And if you need another reason to love bunnies, here’s why rabbits are the luckiest animals.
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