Updated: Apr 1
Legend has it that Christopher Columbus sailed with three ships, saw three hills on a little Caribbean island, and decided to name the island Trinidad after the Spanish word for trinity. Coincidence?
Have you ever noticed how many things come in threes? From the three little pigs to the three branches of government, the brain loves things that come in threes. Right down to our very core, an atom consists of three parts. The circle of life is birth, life and death. Past, present and future. Mind, body and spirit. There are three primary colors, traffic lights are universally red, yellow and green and athletic medals come in bronze, silver and gold. Even the brain has three primary regions.
“Omne trium perfectum” (Latin for the rule of three) suggests that things that come in threes - not only make a greater impact, but they also have sticking power in the brain. There are countless threes from fairy tales to rock groups to cultural concepts.
Studies show people prefer 3 choices over 4 or 5. Three choices offer just enough variety - not too many, not too few... just enough to make us feel as if we're making a sound decision. There is a wealth of research demonstrating greater sales when consumers are presented with three purchase options compared to just two or more than three.
Steve Jobs applied the Rule of 3 in nearly every presentation and product launch. In 2007 Jobs introduced the first iPhone as the “third” of Apple’s revolutionary product categories (the first two were the Macintosh and the iPod). When he introduced the first iPad in 2010, it was the “third device” between the iPhone and computer. The iPad would come in three models giving consumers a choice of 16, 32, and 64 GB of storage.
A year later, Jobs introduced the iPad2 as “thinner, lighter, and faster.” Those three words identified the product as much as the name. Even today, Apple continues to use the power of 3. Browse their website. You’ll find all kinds of examples.
Even the U.S. Marine Corps uses the rule of three to organize almost everything. They employ a very simple hierarchical structure designed to keep everyone's job manageable.
Distilled down into simplest terms, the rule of three maintains that each marine has three things to worry about. In the organizational structure, that means a corporal has a three-person fire team; a sergeant has a squad of three fire teams; a lieutenant and a staff sergeant have a platoon of three squads; and so on.
On a functional level, each marine should focus on no more than three tasks or goals. When applied to strategizing, there should only be three options. After experimenting with a rule of four only to find that effectiveness plummeted, the marines stuck with the rule of three.
Three Brain Secrets Behind the Rule of Three
The rule of three influences learning, decision-making, memory, and even our sense of humor. And, it all comes down to the way the human brain processes information.
1. The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns, perhaps more than any other single function. Our brain looks for shortcuts to process logic, remember facts, and make judgments, but pattern recognition is its deep core capability and the fundamental basis for intelligence, language, creative thought and innovation.
2. Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. A single instance could simply be chance. The second instance could be considered coincidence or serendipity, but the third instance is perceived as a pattern.
3. The combination of the pattern and the simplicity makes it easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to pass on to others.
Want to put the power of the rule of three to work for you? Try this challenge:
1. Begin your day by writing down three things you absolutely want to accomplish. Really... don't just think about them; write them down.
2. Refer to them throughout the day at least three times. Maybe once in the morning, once at mid-day and then again before you wrap up.
3. Look back at your handwritten list at the end of the day and celebrate your accomplishments with circles, stars, smiley faces... whatever visual representation you like.
Veni. Vidi. Vici!