Third Man Factor

Endurance Expedition

Shackleton

The Third Man factor refers to the reported situations where an unseen presence such as a ‘spirit’ provides comfort or support during traumatic experiences. Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in his book ‘South,’ described his belief that an incorporeal being joined him and two others during the final leg of their journey. Shackleton wrote, ‘during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’ His admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences.

In recent years well-known adventurers like climber Reinhold Messner and polar explorers Peter Hillary and Ann Bancroft have reported the experience. One study of cases involving adventurers reported that the largest group involved climbers, followed by solo sailors and shipwreck survivors. Some journalists have related this to the concept of a ‘guardian angel’ or ‘imaginary friend.’ Scientific explanations consider this a coping mechanism. Modern psychologists have used the ‘third man factor’ to treat victims of trauma. The ‘cultivated inner character’ lends imagined support and comfort.

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