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It's unlucky to be superstitious

Did you know that it's unlucky to be superstitious? No, really. Superstitious beliefs can lower house prices, cause deaths in traffic accidents, increase abortion rates, increase the incidence of heart disease and even influence hospitals to waste millions of funding on unnecessary patient care. I repeat: it is unlucky to be superstitious.

From unlucky 13 (the Romans believed that the number 13 was a symbol of death and destruction), to touching wood 'for luck' and crossing fingers, to not walking under a ladder lest we 'break the holy trinity', superstitions are everywhere and powerfully influence us -if we are susceptible.

There are no houses numbered 13 in Paris. For decades the Savoy Hotel in London didn't allow parties of 13 to dine at the hotel and went so far as have a member of staff make up the numbers. Superstition can cause us to take a great deal of trouble. So why do we do this to ourselves?

Magical thinking

Magical thinking sees connections between the different parts of reality that go beyond what can be empirically determined. These connections are believed to have a 'power' which can be manipulated, if you know what to do. Such thinking was pervasive in ancient times. So early cave painters sought to capture the spirit of their intended prey by painting, and thereby 'capturing' their 'spirit'. This meant that actually finding and killing the prey thus became a formality, as the animal spirit had already been captured.

Magical thinking pervades modern life too. Gamblers have their 'lucky numbers' and lottery regulars may have complicated and ritualistic 'systems' using birthdates and the like in a bid to control the outcome of the draw. A recent Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans were at least 'a little' superstitious and a further 25% admitted they were 'very superstitious'. (1) It seems that magical thinking helps us feel more secure in an unpredictable world and therefore it is no surprise that people behave more superstitiously during heightened times of uncertainty or danger.

Superstition as security blanket

Of course, superstitions can be handed from generation to generation but it does seem to be the case that an important function of a superstitious behavior is to provide a sense of security.

Sporting events are unpredictable and uncertain but for professionals taking part the odds can be very high. Swiss tennis ace Martina Hingis allegedly avoids stepping on the court 'tramlines' between points, and US basketball pro Chuck Persons admitted to not feeling right before a game unless he had eaten two KitKat bars or two Snickers bars (or one of each). This ritual he feels will positively influence his game. (2)

We all have a fundamental need to feel in control of our lives and the circumstances within them. Without at least some sense of influence over our lives we can become anxious and depressed. If there really is a connection between increased superstitiousness and increased levels of life uncertainty, we would expect to find that people living in dangerous circumstances are more prone to superstition (and its psychiatric cousin Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Increased stress makes us more superstitious

Superstition provides the illusion of increased control over one's life. More articles on superstition appear in magazines and newspapers when a country is experiencing economic downturn and depression. (3) Researchers also found that Israelis living in the areas 'most prone to be attacked by missile' during the first Gulf War in 1991 became much more superstitious than people living in areas less likely to be attacked. (4)

OCD is an anxiety driven psychological difficulty which causes people to concoct their own superstitious behaviors (such as compulsively washing). OCD also seems to flare up during higher than normal times of stress. The behavior tries to meet the need for safety, predictability and security - but of course it becomes a problem in itself. But can living at number 13 actually be unlucky for you?

How superstitions can mess up the housing market

According to some research on number 13 house numbers, one in ten people who lived at number 13 believed their house number had brought them bad luck. (5) The researchers were curious to discover whether this widespread belief would affect house prices. They conducted a nationwide survey by asking estate agents whether people were resistant to buying houses numbered 13. A whopping 40% of agents replied that there was considerable resistance and that this often resulted in sellers having to lower their prices. So if you're thinking of buying no 13 it may be 40% harder to sell it on again. An unlucky (for the sellers) superstition, if ever there was one. But there are more serious matters at stake than the number of your house. Can what you believe determine the precise moment of death?

Death and superstition

What we believe can determine when - and even how - we die. An article in the British Medical Journal by sociologist David Phillips found a link between superstition and the precise moment of death In Chinese Mandarin the words for 'death' and 'four' are very similar. So the number four is considered highly unlucky (as it is in Japanese culture). Many hospitals do not have a 'fourth' floor and many Japanese will not travel on the fourth day of the month. Chinese and Japanese inpatients may be more reluctant to be discharged on the fourth day of the month - meaning hospitals spend millions delaying discharge dates. And it seems that fear of the dreaded four can itself be fatal.

Phillips wondered whether the stress of the fourth day of a month could induce heart attack. After surveying the records of over 47 million Americans who died between 1973 and 1998, and identifying those that occurred on the fourth day of the month, they found that on that day 13% more American Chinese and Japanese died from 'chronic heart deaths' than white Americans (who had much higher rates of cardiac death over all). (6)

So it seems people can be killed by fear and expectation to such an extent that they expire on an exact date. And what about the dreaded Friday 13th?

Nothing to fear but fear itself

Less people seem to travel on Friday 13th according to other research, (7) which suggests that some nervous motorists are staying at home on this date. These same researchers found that on Friday 13th hospital admissions for traffic related accidents rose by around 52% - but not significantly for any other type of accident.

Yet more research in Finland looked at the incidence of deaths over 324 Friday 13ths, with a control of 1339 'normal Fridays'. (8) They found that 5% more men died on the fateful days while a massive 38% more women did! They too put it down to anxious driving causing accidents and declared that 'superstition kills'. But it appears that superstition can also even lead to increased rates of abortion.

The dreaded year of the fire horse

The 'year of the fire horse' comes around every 60 years according to the ancient Sino-Japanese almanac. The fire horse year symbolizes bad luck. Legend has it that females born in this year are especially prone to bad fortune. The last fire horse year was 1966, which saw a staggering drop in the annual female birth rate of 25% across the whole of Japan. There was also an increase of more than 20,000 induced abortions. Even more frightening is that newborn child mortality rates for girls (but not boys) rose significantly. Japanese researcher Kanae Kaku and his team based in Kyoto University concluded that it was possible that Japanese girls were being 'sacrificed to a folk superstition' during the year of the fire horse. (9)

So superstations really do bring bad luck then?

Well, in a way, it can be unlucky to be superstitious, or to be the victim of other people's 'magical thinking'. But lest you think I have argued a case for believing in the reality of bad luck being attached to some of the above, we must remember the famous 'Thirteen Club' - the esteemed organization set up in the 1880s by Captain William Fowler, a US civil war veteran, to flout all superstations. Every month on the thirteenth day he would dine with twelve other guests as they opened umbrellas indoors, spilled salt on the tables and broke all the superstitious 'laws' they could think of. They continued this for over forty years; the membership grew into the thousands and included five successive US presidents (none of whom were assassinated). Many of the members seem to enjoy good health, longevity and fortune, living long and healthy lives.

It seems that it's the belief in superstition that causes harm rather than the superstition itself.

Notes

  1. 'One in four Americans superstitious', Gallup Poll News Service, 13 October 2000.
  2. J.McCallum-'Green cars, black cats, and lady luck', Sports Illustrated 68, pages 86-94, 8 February 1988.
  3. Vernon Padgett from Marshal University and Dale Jorgenson from California State University compared the numbers of articles on astrology, mysticism and cults in German magazines and newspapers in Germany between the wars when inflation was so high that people carried paper money in shopping bags.
  4. This study was conducted by psychologists at Tel Aviv University in 1991.
  5. S.E Peckham and P.G.Bhagwat, No.13: Unlucky/Lucky for Some, Peckwat Publications, New Milton, 1993.
  6. David P. Phillips, George C. Liu, Kennon Kwok, Jason R. Jarvinen, Wei Zhang, Ian S. Abramson: The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: A natural experiment on the Influence of psychological stress on the timing of death. BMJ 2001;323:1443-1446 ( 22-29 December).
  7. T.J.Scalon, R.N. Luben, R.N. Luben, Is Friday 13th bad for your health?, BMJ 307, pages 1584-6, 1993.
  8. (Näyhä S: Traffic deaths and superstition on Friday the 13th. Am J Psychiatry 2002, 159: 2110-2111.
  9. Kaku K. Were girl babies sacrificed to a folk superstition in 1966 in Japan? Ann Hum Biol 1975; 2: 391-393.

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