The Third Man factor or Third Man syndrome refers to the reported situations where an unseen presence such as a “spirit” provides comfort or support during traumatic experiences. 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.
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, with solo sailors and shipwreck survivors being the second most common group, followed by polar explorers. Some journalists have related this to be the source of the guardian angel belief and children’s imaginary friends. Scientific explanations consider this a coping mechanism for stressful situations or an example of bicameralism. The concept was popularized by a book by John G. Geiger The Third Man Factor, that documents scores of examples.