Why Do We Believe That Catastrophes Come in Threes?

Fawcett McMahon Jackson

Michael Jackson's untimely death coupled with the deaths of Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett in the same week revived the belief of many that celebrity deaths, plane crashes and all manner of catastrophes come in threes. The persistence of this belief is difficult to explain since the case for it is so easily demolished.

After all, every recurrent phenomenon must come in threes. All we need to do is wait for the third one to occur. If Michael Jackson hadn't died, we would simply wait for another celebrity to die.

Given how many people we tend to elevate to this status, this shouldn't take long. Billy Mays and Gayle Storm, for example, died as I wrote this.

Or we could go back in time.

If Jackson hadn't died, then believers could point to the deaths of David Carradine, Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett as illustrating their claim. The death-in-threes claim is empty and uselessly flexible in at least two senses. Not only is the time frame unspecified, but so is the definition of celebrity.

The game is meaningless but sometimes addictive. What about U.S. senators and sexual peccadillos? We have Craig, Vitter and Ensign. Or we can play it with governors. Here we have Spitzer, McGreevey, and Sanford.

If there aren't yet three, we can loosen the job constraints or lengthen the time spans; if there are more than three, then we can tighten the job constraints or shorten the time spans.

Triaphilia, Why the Persistence?

The tendency to want to hold on to the three connection is strong in many areas of life.

Why? One reason might be a sort of number mysticism. Three is the first odd prime number, the triangle is a stable shape, in our base 10 system, the fraction 1/3 is .3333333…, et cetera.

A second more compelling reason might be psychological, perhaps deriving from the structure and limited complexity of our brains.

The appeal of the trinity in Christianity and other religions, the philosophical triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and even the setup of many jokes seem to stem in part from a natural resonance with the number three. (A priest, a minister and a rabbi go into a bar and ..., or a physicist, an engineer and a mathematician are asked how to … .)

People Naturally Seek Patterns

A related third reason might be the fact that people are naturally pattern-seeking, and searching for and labeling triads, even if pointless, can give people a sense of control as only mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus, and flapdoodle can.

Michael Eck's Web page, The Book of Threes, is replete with countless examples of the ubiquity of threeness.

To get back to Michael Jackson (with due acknowledgement that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the "Big Bopper" all died together in a plane crash in 1959, and that Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison all died with weeks of each other in 1970, et cetera), the fact is that deaths (celebrity or otherwise) are like births, a random Poisson process that regularly gives rise to clumps of people being born together or dying together.

It's well-known that in a group of only 23 people, there is a 50 percent probability that two of them will share a birthday (or a deathday), not necessarily in the same year.

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