March 2014

Power of Three

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If we look around, we’ll notice that items grouped in threes shape our lives in various ways. We generally think of our days in three parts: morning, afternoon and evening. Many of us have three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And our perception of the physical world occurs in three dimensions: height, width and depth.

Numbers such as one, two, four, five and ten have importance in our daily lives, too. But in recognition of the third month of the year, let’s focus on the power of the number three.

We’ll investigate the power of three by looking at it through three different lenses: popular culture, a scientific angle and the big picture.

Popular culture

From the time we’re very young, we’re exposed to stories in which “three” is prominent, such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Not only that, but we expect our stories to have three parts—a beginning, a middle and an end. We seem to like to have our stories grouped in threes; the trilogy is often a successful way to group books or movies.

The Goldilocks story may give some clues regarding the significance of three. She repeatedly faces three choices, and in each case she picks one that is “just right.” It might be that, when it comes to choice, three is a number that the human brain is very comfortable with. Think about how clothing sizes are often in threes: small, medium and large. There are lots of other products that are grouped in threes, such as jars of salsa that are labeled mild, medium or hot.

We can look at how some movies reflect the power of three. As indicated earlier, there have been a large number of film trilogies. Additionally, numerous titles in film history contain the number three, including A Letter to Three Wives, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Three Faces of Eve, Three Days of the Condor, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, 3 Men and a Baby, Three Kings, and assorted versions of The Three Musketeers; not to be forgotten, The Three Stooges starred in many films over the years.

It’s interesting to observe that, in the early years of TV in the U.S., viewers had three networks to choose from: ABC, CBS and NBC. Before the globalization of the motor vehicles market, most Americans bought their cars from one of three companies: Chrysler, Ford or GM. Factors such as economies of scale probably played a substantial role in determining the number of dominant companies in those industries. But consumer comfort with having three choices may have been a factor.

We can also observe that the number three does not always connote something positive in our culture. There are definitely some perils associated with three. “Three’s a crowd” and “third wheel” are common phrases that convey that situations involving three people can sometimes be problematic.

Scientific angle

Besides popular culture, we can consider the power of three from a scientific angle. As stated earlier, our perception of the world takes place in three dimensions. We can talk about 3-D printing and 3-D TVs, but more fundamentally our lives on this planet are 3-D experiences. Speaking of this planet, it’s intriguing to note in this context that earth is the “third rock from the sun.” Another observation related to science is that a triangle is often considered to be the most stable shape.

There has been some scientific research done recently on the power of three in matters involving persuasion. An article in the New York Times in January reported on a study that looked at the following question: “How many positive claims should be used to produce the most positive impression of a product or service?” The researchers conducted experiments involving varying numbers of claims for products such as shampoo and cereal. (To give an example from the study, an ad describing a cereal as “Healthier, better tasting, crunchier, and with higher quality ingredients” would be using four claims.) The study concluded that, when consumers know that a message has a persuasive intent, three positive claims is the optimal number to have. At four claims, a consumer starts to be skeptical. The source of the message may come across as trying too hard if more than three claims are used. So if you are trying to persuade someone with a message, you may be more effective if you stop at three claims.

The same researchers have done work on the willingness of individuals to infer that they are witnessing a streak in a series of events. Having three events go the same way in a row resulted in “maximal willingness” to infer a streak; adding a fourth event going the same way didn’t increase the belief that a streak is happening.

The big picture

The final lens through which we will view the number three can be called “the big picture.” In other words, we can look at its spiritual and religious significance.

It seems significant that our perception of reality is divided into three parts: past, present and future. We may choose to focus on the present much of the time, but we can reflect on the past to learn from it and we can get ready for the future with planning and preparation. Many of us view ourselves in terms of three components: mind, body and spirit. We may find it helpful to try to strike a balance among those components so we’re not living too much in just one.

This discussion leads us to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You will recall that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future appear in it. Scrooge declares in the last chapter that he will “live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” He goes on to say, “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.” Perhaps this is another way of looking at balance among mind, body and spirit. The knowledge and wisdom of the Ghost of Christmas Past could correspond to the mind; the earthly appetites and fleeting nature of the Ghost of Christmas Present could correspond to the body; and the mysterious nature of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come could correspond to the spirit.

In addition to these types of spiritual significance, the number three is important in various religions. In Christianity the Trinity—consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—is of course a key concept. There are other major religions in which a grouping of three has an important role. “The Three Jewels of Buddhism” are 1) the Buddha (our pure awareness), 2) the Dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) and 3) the Sangha (a loving community). Hinduism, with its multitude of deities, has a group of three major gods and a group of three major goddesses; each group includes a deity that is connected to creation, preservation or destruction.

Our exploration of the number three suggests that it does play a notable role in our lives. We’ve seen how it appears in some children’s stories and in some movies. We’ve discussed scientific findings that indicate that using three positive claims is the way to go if you’re trying to persuade someone. Lastly, we’ve considered that we split our perception of reality into three parts (past, present and future), we tend to think of ourselves as having three components (mind, body and spirit), and for some of us, a grouping of three has special significance in our religious beliefs.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the March 2014 issue

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