Rules of Three

The first two set the expectation…

Think fast!

A lawyer, a priest, and a dentist walk into a bar…

Maybe you’ve heard this one before?

The brain has this thing with events that come in 3’s.


Photo “Three” by Julien Belli, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

For example, we think bad luck comes in threes.

We’re relieved when that third thing finally happens… and it wasn’t all so bad after all.

This is one Rule of Three.

There are more tho…

Here’s a few.

In Stage Magic, performing an action twice sets the audience expectation for what should happen the third time.

The magician performs an action, there is an outcome. Same action, same outcome. Same action…

That third time is when the sleight happens… and the ball disappears! Or whatever happens.

In Hypnosis, three commands at once sets expectations and overwhelms someone’s mental capacity, and they act.

Here’s how that works—

Ask someone, all in one sentence, to do three things, with the first two being quite easy. The third will (often) just be accepted and acted upon, as the brain is trying to catch up with the list it has agreed to.

Example, “Could you pass me that pencil, cut this deck of cards quick, and then run for another bottle of wine?”

Three commands in one. Try it over the holidays when your beverage is empty.

Another hypnosis thing is for the hypnotist to ask the participant to make small adjustments.

“Stand here… no, here; Put your arm like this… a little higher; Ok now, while you count to twenty…”

As she complies with the first command… the second command… and the third… she becomes accustomed to the pattern of following the hypnotist’s suggestions.

*|FNAME|* here’s another Rule of Three—

In Comedy, including fiction and standup and everything else, the audience is again prepared by an action, the outcome. An action, the outcome. An action… and then the unexpected COMEDIC SURPRISE!

It’s really quite effective, even when you can see it coming.

That’s three Rules of Three for today. Got any more?

PS. Did you notice, in the Comedy example, how the first two examples were legit (“fiction and standup”) but the third example was pretty nondescript (“everything else”?

Your brain may have been conditioned by the first two, and just let that third one slide.

PPS. There is no punchline for my opening joke. I made it up to help you recall this common comedic structure.