Friday, February 22, 2008

Rule of Threes

Deliberate Technique ... Phenomenon ...
Coincidence ... Superstition ... Secret Force?

"Questioning Threes Significance" elicited some comments to my previous post's speculative ramblings about whether or not certain numbers might have special meaning in our lives. Some readers mentioned select numbers other than three, as did a younger friend who said her number was "777" -- to what do all those digits apply? I recall a time period when 13 seemed to be a lucky number for me with its frequent emergence in unexpected ways i.e. a house number. Do we discover more than one number for each of differing situations?

Maybe our "number" changes over the span of our lives. Do we select experiences that associate with our number? Does our number somehow dictate what the total of those events will be? What is the significance of these multi-digit numbers in this scheme?

The numbers topic came to mind simply because I happened to notice those "threes" about which I wrote. I thought this subject offered one way in which to acknowledge the time lapse since I had last written here. I wanted to affirm I had not yet abandoned this virtual corner in the blogosphere before someone tried to establish squatter's rights. Does such happen with blogs? I have so many questions about so many subjects besides numbers.

I've been aware of 'three' groupings throughout my life, having heard such sayings as "Third time is a charm," "Everything happens in threes." I began to wonder about others experiences with three and what this 'rule of threes' is all about -- deliberate technique, phenomenon, coincidence, superstition, some 'secret force'?

The "Rule of Threes" is a concept commonly used in one form as a means for describing structural organization. This concept's origins are debatable, but creating categories of threes with their subsequent extensive employment in a multitude of ways has occurred for centuries. Categorization is used to facilitate information storage and retrieval in our brain, a way to help us better understand the world around us.

Among the variety of articles on this Rule is an essay by freelance writer Yves Barbero with the following quote which, since the source was unknown, he attributed to Kilroy, who has been "...around since at least World War II." (Read some interesting stories about Kilroy's identity HERE.)

"The common man sees the world as nature sees it,
yes and no, good and evil, on and off -- the
artificer, the scholar, the intellectual sees the
world in threes, and makes a full time occupation
of explaining the unnatural."

The classic example Barbero cites for this "three-fold division Sigmund Freud's id, ego, and superego." He notes Freud "...may have warned that this division was a shorthand convenience for psychoanalysts, and not distinct elements in defining personality, but generations of practitioners have made a priesthood of guarding these intellectual icons."

Barbero's essay describes one broad use of a threes system as including "religious, social, scientific" applications, most of which many of us are probably quite familiar i.e. the religious Holy Trinity. He demonstrates how we can devise our own divisions of three just as some scholars do. His essay uses the examples he provides to analyze issues associated with teaching creationism and evolution within a school science curriculum. The purpose here is simply to examine the more common well-known uses of the "Rule of Threes" most of which utilize deliberate techniques.

We begin from birth categorizing information received through all our senses, gradually becoming able to associate words to these groups i.e. milk evolves into food which includes sub-categories of beverages, etc. Eventually we're incidentally introduced to 'threes' as I think of the nursery rhyme category inclusive of the group designated animals, such as, "Three Blind Mice," "Three Little Pigs," and "Goldilocks" featuring three bears. This often unconscious organizational behavior continues throughout our life with new information we receive, though the 'three' grouping matters little for much of it.

Currently we're immersed in categorizing activities we can characterize as political. Candidates seeking to be our country's next president are speaking extensively with rhetoric designed to elicit our support and vote. Methods are employed to impact our emotions, increase the likelihood certain speaker words are noticed and remembered. Here, the speaker's rhetoric may use a 'threes' technique emphasizing a thought by repeating a specific statement or question three times, sometimes with increasing loudness, and changing inflection. They want us to remember: "I promise real change" ..... "I Promise Real Change" ..... "I Promise REAL CHANGE!"
("Mother Pie" provides several excellent posts analyzing political techniques being used in this current political environment beginning with her Feb. 13th post.)

Learning techniques often include the belief three repetitions are necessary for new information acquisition and retention. This idea is also prevalent in hypnosis when the susceptible, submissive candidate is perceived to have assimilated the proffered message, by demonstrating its use in observed behaviors. Often the success of the actual hypnosis is at least partially attributed to the hypnotizing process that has incorporated use of this 'threes' concept.

Additionally, the aesthetically pleasing visual composition with the "three" concept is often used by artists in the creation of their various arts and crafts, such as in determining photo composition. Similarly, actor placement or "blocking," is a system using threes directors use in grouping people on a stage as in theatre plays. More ordinary applications may occur in home decorating, including arrangement of room furniture, table or mantle objects, wall pictures, as additional examples that provide opportunities to implement the 'threes' concept.

The use of threes occurs in writing as noted in the nursery rhymes, but continues into more advanced complex writing forms. Some music is likely influenced by threes. Comics joke delivery incorporates the "threes" concept as do even professional clowns who use the technique in their behavioral actions, one such clown told me recently.

"Survival and Outdoor" website reports U.S. Armed Forces Survival Schools teach

"You can survive three seconds without thinking, three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food or three months without hope."

A less pleasant application of this "rule of threes" is the belief entertained by some that certain unwelcome events occur in threes, usually within a relatively short time period of each other. My husband and I were often reminded of this latter "threes" superstition when some iconic personality departed this life. We wondered, would there be a second? If there was a second death, our interest would heighten sometimes with speculation as to whether or not there would be a third. When there seemed to be the inevitable third death soon after the second, then we questioned whether or not superstition was the appropriate descriptive word for these events. Was this merely a coincidence, a "three" phenomenon – or the result of some secret force?

I continue to wonder about this "rule of threes." I wonder how others might have acquired any notion of "special" numbers, if they entertain such thoughts? Perhaps the possibility that some "secret force" exists is simply magical thinking, a consequence of the idea having been at some time some how implanted in my mind.


  1. This is an interesting thing Joarad, about the 'power of three'....I know very little about this or the validity of it, but there certainly seems to be a 'comfort' in a series of three things. In writing, for instance, giving examples of something---TWO, doeswn't seem quite enough; FOUR, seems roo much; And THREE, seems just right. It's the FEEL of it that seems correct, or the rhythm of it, if you will....The thing is, I don't know if that is learned or indtinctive, or what...?
    Lots of food for thought here.

    So sorry to read you were so very very sick, my dear....! It sounds like it was really horrific in every way....! I hope that THAT is all behind you now and that you have made a full recovery...! These things can really lay you low and then have a lingering effect. too...Do take good care.

  2. There were also a number of references to events in threes in the book of women's myths, Women Who Run with the Wolves.

    In Tai Chi, you must do the form 3, 6, or 9 times.

  3. You bring some interesting points and questions to this post, Joared. As I said before, I have noticed numbers cropping up in my life from time to time, and I have not been able to discern the significance of them, if any. I certainly have noticed the rule of 3 where celebrity deaths are concerned. The houses I have lived in which I was happiest - or where significant things happened - all had house numbers that add up to nine.

  4. oldoldlady: Interesting that as an artist yourself you say, "...there seems to be a 'comfort' in a series of three...the FEEL of it that seems correct, or the rhythm of it..."

    Web Teacher: Nice to know about the additional references, book and Tai Chi.

    Kenju: Never thought about adding numbers as you describe to discover a common total.

  5. Interesting concept and discussion that has my thinking juice starting to trickle this morning. I have no superstitions and tend to be on the scientific side of most issues. Show me proof. Accordingly, I have never put much stock in numbers other than as patterns. In part, we define our space and comfort zones, indeed, to an extent who we are, with recognizable and easily replicated patterns. That's what speech is. And writing -- these words. And music. And etc. Our natural state is to gravitate to those patterns with which we are most at ease.

    If I have a number (I've never thought about it until now) it must be one -- uno -- the numeral 1. Though horribly amateurish, I have created artwork (painting, sculpture) over the years, as well as poetry and essays. Everything I've ever done (pre-blog) has been given a one word title or name. I have more than one picture, mine as well as others, of lone trees. The first one I did as a teenager and still have, is titled "Singularity".

    Having said all that, I wonder how much of a field day some analyst could have with me. There must be a dimension or three missing from my makeup. Or maybe I just need another cup of coffee...