Got your spell on me, baby. You got your spell on me, baby. Yes, you got your spell on me, baby, turning my heart into stone. I need you so bad, magic woman, I can’t leave you alone. So sings Peter Green in his 1968 song which first appeared as a Fleetwood Mac single. Green who passed away just last year, was a member of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the crucible that launched Fleetwood Mac when drummer Mick Fleetwood was fired, and Green and bassist John McVie left to form the new group – which by the way was initially known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, also featuring Jeremy Spencer.
I never met my wife’s grandmother, but from what I hear from everyone who knew her, she was a very wise woman. For example, she coined an amazing phrase that perfectly explains the difficult economic concept of utility (one banana good, two banana sick, three banana die). She also said that bad things come in threes. As of last month, it seems as if Grandma Tillie was some sort of fortune teller.
Not only did we have three deaths in the family, but yours truly caught the dreaded COVID and was down with a pretty bad flu for three weeks. And while I was sick, a pipe burst in my new home – and it took the plumber three tries to fix it.
Three seems to be a kind of unlucky number for me. But folklore loves the number. In Ancient Greece the number three represented harmony, with three brothers, Zeus (the sky), Poseidon (the seas), and Hades (the underworld), dividing up the world between them. The Egyptian pantheon hosts ae earlier Trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. This likely translated to the trinity in Christianity. In Chinese cultures, the number three is considered good luck because the pronunciation is similar to the word for alive.
And the black magic woman, well in tarot the threes represent creation.
So, if three is such a good number, why then the old adage that my wife’s grandmother used to say? Not only do bad things come in threes, but soldiers all know that one should never light three cigarettes with the same match or it will lead to death.
Three candles burning in a room is bad luck and three knocks in the room of a dying person is a harbinger of death. Breakages and tipped over glasses of water come in threes. Three butterflies on a leaf is considered bad luck as is hearing an owl call three times.
A fear of the number three is called triskaphobia, not to be confused with triskaidekaphobia, which is the fear of the number 13. It is a real psychological condition, and there are cases in which an individual has developed a phobia from 3. Triskaphobia falls under the category of anxiety disorders, and people with the condition can experience panic attacks when they are exposed to triggers for the number.
The origin of the idea that bad things come in threes seems to be lost to time, however, the phrase became popular in the late 1800s, likely because of the three cigarettes on a match story that appears to have originated during the Boer War, which began in 1899. However, the prevalence of threes is likely something that comes out of the psyche of the human mind. Triads and triangles are familiar patterns that we are constantly on the lookout for. This leads to something known as confirmation bias.
Since we are programmed to think that bad things come in threes, when a couple of things go wrong, we automatically start to look for the next bad break. And the very fact that we are looking for the third bad thing means that we will find it. The same thing is true for those who would believe that three is a charm.
The fact is that the human brain loves to find patterns. It’s the same thing that leads people to see images of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, or a cloud that looks like an elephant. It’s the same thing that leads us to misinterpret statistics and data. We all have inherent bias and focus on the numbers and statistics that support a particular narrative. Two people can look at the same dataset and walk away with a different interpretation. This is just one reason why Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything – they interpret the data differently.
Economics is no different. Two individuals can view the same set of data or statistics and interpret the numbers vastly different. Our inherent bias drives us to find the pattern of data that supports a particular narrative. The statistics themselves don’t lie, but with a little black magic, numbers can be made to show different stories. Three can be good, or bad – it just depends on the narrative.