Celebrities don't really die in 3's -- but here's why you think they do

29.06.2013 17:19

First Ray Manzarek, then Jean Stapleton,
then James Gandolfini, whose funeral was
today . It’s the Celebrity Death Rule of
Threes – when one of our stars dies, two
more tend to follow, or so the common
wisdom goes.
The most famous example might be
2009’s Summer of Death: Ed McMahon on
June 23, Farrah Fawcett on June 25, and a
few hours later that day, of course,
Michael Jackson.
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But we know, somewhere underneath the
magical thinking, that when two
celebrities die, the Grim Reaper isn’t
actually poised to take another. So why do
we keep repeating the rule of threes?
“Celebrities die every day -- there’s no
pattern at all of, course,” says Michael
Shermer, author of “The Believing Brain”
and publisher of Skeptic magazine, which
investigates pseudoscientific and
supernatural ideas.
He points out that there’s not even a real
“rule” to the Rule of Threes. “There’s no
rule! Is it six hours? Six days? Three
weeks? What constitutes a celebrity? How
big do you have to be?” Because if we’re
talking A-listers all the way down to C-
and D-listers, he says, “they die by the
dozens every week!”
Human beings are naturally inclined to
seek patterns, even when there are none
to be sought.
“Patterns in death, patterns in misfortune
– those are things that help us try to
understand the universe or reality in a
way that makes sense of it,” explains John
Hoopes, a professor of anthropology at
the University of Kansas who has written
about the concept for Psychology Today .
“In general, we’re very uncomfortable
dealing with randomness.”
We take comfort in being able to explain
some of the haphazard courses our lives
take. And if we think we know when a
pattern starts, we can also “know” when it
ends. There’s an episode of “30 Rock” that
hilariously illustrates the Rule of Threes
belief – after two other celebrity deaths,
Tracy Jordan and Jimmy Fallon each
sincerely think they could be next. Fallon
says at one point, “If some celebrity
doesn’t die soon, I’m going to kill my first
guest tonight. [Pause for effect.] It’s a dog
who plays soccer.”The phenomenon is sometimes called
apophenia, Hoopes says.
“Apophenia is identifying significant
relationships when, in fact, they probably
don’t exist independent of the observer,”
Hoopes explains.
Sitcoms aside, we see examples of this
every time someone reports seeing the
face of the Virgin Mary on their grilled
cheese sandwich, or ascribing some kind
of superstitious significance to glancing up
at a digital clock exactly at 11:11.
And there’s something special about the
number 3 in our culture: we have three
bears, three blind mice, rock-paper-
scissors, and phrases like “location,
location, location,” “bloods, sweat and
tears” or “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
We have bronze, silver and gold medals,
and Christians have the Father, the Son
and the Holy Ghost. For Westerners
especially, Shermer says, “The third data
point is a critical point at which our brain
goes, ‘There ‘s a pattern; that’s an
intelligent signal, not a random noise.’”
But identifying patterns doesn’t always
amount to superstitious or magical
thinking. That’s essentially what science is,
Shermer says – connecting dots that can
explain climate change or how a virus
spreads. It may stem from evolutionary
usefulness.
Shermer says, “Imagine you’re a hominid
on the plains of Africa, and you hear a
rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous
predator or just the wind?” If you assume
it’s a predator and bolt – you’re wrong,
but there’s no harm done. “But if you
think the rustle in the grass is just the
wind and it’s a dangerous predator –
you’re lunch. So we are the descendants
of those organisms most likely to find
meaningful patterns.”
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In modern life, an example might be
thinking someone is following you while
you’re walking along the street. Maybe
they’re not – but it’s better to be alert.
“The extreme opposite of that is someone
who is totally oblivious,” Hoopes says. “It’s
always better to recognize a pattern and
be prepared to deal with it than to ignore
it.”