Niagara Gazette


February 15, 2011

BRADBERRY: Do good and bad things come in threes?

Column by Bill Bradberry — There’s a common notion, an old saying or adage that “things come in threes:” good things, bad things, all sorts of things, but especially bad things.

No doubt you’ve heard it, seen it and have probably even personally experienced it. We have come to expect it in most cases, particularly when it comes to public tragedies, accidents, deaths and every imaginable manner of mishaps in between from earthquakes to snowstorms, winning streaks to losing streaks, weddings to divorces ... you name it!

Personally, I noticed a long time ago what appeared to be a pattern in my family and in other families I have known throughout the years. It just seemed like certain things always happened in threes; mothers were having babies in threes, family members or friends were dying in threes, not all on the same date, of course, but within some relatively short timeframe close enough to each other to make anyone wonder, is there actually something to this notion?

When someone announced a baby was on the way, other members of the family often wondered out loud and to each other, who was going to be next; the same was true when someone became seriously ill or passed on.

And sure enough, with rare exception, the predictions that “things come in threes” almost always came true.

Is it superstition, folk lore, coincidence, or what?

Maybe it’s just our imagination or maybe not.

The idea, deeply rooted in many cultures has been around a long time. A little surface research shows that as far back as 1891, for example, one publication, “Notes and Queries 7th Ser. XII. 489” quotes one source this way: “One of my servants having accidentally broken a glass, asked for two other articles of little value, a wine bottle and jam crock, that she might break them, and so prevent the two other accidents ... which would otherwise follow.”

Indeed the adage seems to have roots in Chinese, as well as in Spanish, English and Irish culture. It appears to be universal.

As writer John Allen Paulos asked in his 2009 commentary, Why do we believe that catastrophes come in threes? “The persistence of this belief is difficult to explain since the case for it is so easily demolished.”

Paulos goes on to point out that one reason for the tendency to hold on to the “three connection” is because of a “sort of number mysticism.”

There is something mysteriously mysterious about the number three.

Three is the first odd prime number, “the triangle is a stable shape ... the fraction 1/3 is .3333333, et cetera.”

He offers what he considers a more compelling “reason,” noting from a psychological standpoint, the structure and the relatively limited complexity of our brains easily accommodates the number.


Paulos notes the appeal of the trinity in Christianity and other religions, and even the setup of popular jokes built around the number three, for example, “a priest, a minister and a rabbi …”

But more persuasive is his argument that people naturally seek patterns even if they are pointless mumbo-jumbo; it’s a way, he says, that people can gain a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

He points us to Michael Eck’s web page, “The Book of Threes” in which Eck notes “countless examples of the ubiquity of threeness.”

As an example, in a group of just 23 people Paulos points out, there is a 50 percent chance that two of them share a birthday or death date, though not necessarily in the same year.

So what’s the point?

I’m not sure there is one; I just happened to realize recently I have been going to an awful lot of funerals lately, or hearing about the passing of distant friends and acquaintances and celebrities and that they seem to be coming in groups of threes.

Of course, we are all more apt to notice the passing of celebrities just because they are so overly publicized; who could not help but notice, for example, if you can recall, that in 1959 the “Big Bopper,” Richie Valens, and Buddy Holly all died together, or that rockers Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix died within weeks of each other in 1970, and that more recently, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon both died within days of each other.

But it’s not just funerals; its births, weddings, divorces, even politics.

Remember the names Ensign, Craig and Vitter? How about Sanford, McGreevy and Spitzer?

And more eerily, Kennedy, King, Kennedy ... all shot down during the turmoil of the ’60s?

So, is there something to it, or not? Real or not we wonder.

After the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords, security officials prepared for what many believed was the inevitable copy-cat repetition of the maniacal deed, and since the embarrassing resignation of Congressman Christopher Lee, many may be waiting for what they may believe to be the inevitable next shoe to drop.

Who knows what might lie ahead?

On a more positive note, it would certainly be good to add something encouraging to the relatively recent good news that the unemployment rate dropped slightly, and that manufacturing and automobile sales are up dramatically. Wouldn’t it be good to hear that earnings, spending and savings are up as a direct result, and that the economy is headed back in the right direction?

Would it be too much to look for some good news, for example that the high-school drop-out rates have fallen off while the graduation rates have begun to rise and that graduates are finding work, going to college or entering vocational training?

How about a triad of announcements that real progress is being made toward curing cancer, ending polio and that the high incidence of heart diseases in our community is being dramatically reduced?

When it comes to bad things happening in threes, hopefully there really is nothing more than simple coincidence at work here, and the notion is nothing more than folklore and superstition.

In reality, there is no good reason to stop counting at three. Especially when we’re counting the good things.

Contact Bill Bradberry at

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