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.
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.”
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.”