As much as we would like to think that in 2014 our world is completely customizable, the fact remains that certain laws of nature cannot be overcome.  Just like gravity keeps us grounded, numbers are similarly powerful when it comes to affecting the human mind.

According to marketing and behavioral-science professors Kurt Carlson of Georgetown University and Suzanne Shu of the University of California, Los Angeles, in their study titled When Three Charms but Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings, three is the perfect number in terms of aesthetics. 

To reach this conclusion the professors presented manufactured “persuasive scenarios” to hundreds of undergraduate students with as few as one and as many as six reasons to choose the product.  They gauged the perception, reaction, and attitude of the participants on things like breakfast cereal, billboard ads, politicians, as well as relationships.  In the end their study concluded that the overwhelming majority of people typically prefer things in sets of three.

In ads, stump speeches (Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech included more than a dozen triples) and other messages understood to have manipulative intent, three claims will persuade, but four (or more) will trigger skepticism, and reverse an initially positive impression. “You reach maximal streakiness at three events, and we thought maybe there’s a similar thing going on in discourse,” Kurt Carlson said.

In one scenario posited by the professors, a hypothetical friend says that John is “intelligent, kind, funny and cute.” At the fourth word, the subjects’ eyebrows, and skepticism, popped upward. Given four reasons, respondents were more likely to answer that the friend was “kidding herself about how great John is,” than they were to conclude, as they did at three, that “John is a real catch.”

When I look at our own language constructs at Saatchi & Saatchi, I find “Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy” to be the three elements of Lovemarks. Our spirit is embedded in three words: “Nothing Is Impossible.” And the holy grail of marketing is expressed as “Loyalty Beyond Reason.”

Three is not a universal rule (there were four Beatles, five Jacksons, a sixth sense, seven deadly sins, eight lucky numbers, nine lives and ten Commandments), but for me three is the optimum number for actions to take, words to live by and days in an ideal weekend.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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