Do bad things happen in threes?

According to some people good things happen in threes, too, but there is nothing magic about the number three. Things do sometimes come in clusters but it isn’t fate or a higher power taking control, it’s just the counter-intuitive nature of randomness.

When explaining randomness a fruitcake is usually wheeled out — not, alas, for the purposes of refreshment, but as an illustration. Imagine a fruitcake (imaginary fruitcake is usually employed, as it leaves less crumbs, but feel free to verify with a real one) and think about the way the bits of fruit are distributed throughout. There are solitary sultanas scattered about, but in some places there are clumps of fruit and in others wide expanses of uninterrupted cake. That is what randomness looks like.

Our brains, on the other hand, seem to prefer a notion of randomness that spreads everything perfectly evenly. We imagine a random fruitcake to be one where all the sultanas and cherries and so on are arranged in a neat pattern.

But random things are unpredictable things. If you ponder the matter you will come to realise that for the position of fruit in a cake to be random — unpredictable — then occasionally they have to be in clumps. If they were spread out uniformly in an evenly-spaced grid then from the position of one sultana you could predict where all the others were. And if they aren’t spaced evenly then some must be closer together than others — in other words there must be clumps.

Now imagine events scattered through your life like the fruit scattered through a cake. Many of them are also unpredictable and so, while they sometimes come one at a time, they often clump together in twos, threes, even fours and beyond.

It is true that sometimes a cluster of things go wrong all at once. In a way it’s just the price we must pay for having interesting and varied lives. If you live life not knowing what tomorrow will bring, you just have to accept that sometimes it will bring far more than you bargained for.


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