Animals

Do Bad Things Really Come In 3's?

Disasters and catastrophes always seem to come in threes. Why is this?

Related on TestTube:
3 Dumb Ways Your Brain Sabotages You
Is The Supreme Court Biased?

Scientists found the reason why bad things "come in threes": they simply don't. Humans look for patterns in random data in a way to extract order from disorder. The tendency is called apophenia and it was first described by German psychologist and neuroscientists Klaus Conrad 1958 who was studying people suffering the onset of schizophrenia. For them, they experience delusion as a sort of revelation.

The ability for mentally healthy people to identify and exploit patterns in nature has given us a tremendous evolutionary advantage. Mathematics, for example, is a way of describing a pattern or event that occurs in nature. Astrology, on the other hand, applies patterns onto perceived events and makes vague predictions that are easily applied to a variety of different situations. Astrology is hard to dismiss because it takes into account another human flaw in perception known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to essentially cherry pick information that confirms our beliefs and conveniently overlook the examples that don't.

Another important component is the affinity of the number three in Western culture: there's a preponderance of examples of this in religion (the Holy Trinity), storytelling ("The Three Pigs", "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"), literature (the three-act play), and so on. There are threes everywhere. In reality, bad things happen all the time, but because of confirmation bias, apophenia, and our own cultural biases, we just have a tendency to group them in threes.

Do you find yourself believing in any other superstitions that you have a hard time letting go of? Let us know in the comments--we always love to hear from you.

Learn More:
Why Do We Believe That Catastrophes Come In Threes? (ABC)
"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."

Confirmation Bias (Explorable)
"Confirmation bias is a person's tendency to favor information that confirms their assumptions, preconceptions or hypotheses whether these are actually and independently true or not. The phenomenon is also called confirmatory bias or myside bias."

What Is a Confirmation Bias? (About.com)
"Where do your beliefs and opinions come from?"

The Number Three In American Culture (Threes.com)
"Students undertaking professional training in anthropology are rarely, if ever, required to formally study their own cultures."