For the second time this year, the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, bringing with it the uneasy feeling for many that bad luck may be looming.
“It’s been estimated that [U.S] $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day because people will not fly or do business they would normally do,” Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute, told National Geographic News.
But what is the root cause of that overwhelming fear?
History has shown us that it’s not just the specific date that folks fear; the number itself has been known to bring rise to superstitions and anxiety, as has that particular day of the week. And some scholars suggest that the taboo surrounding them may perhaps date back to the Middle Ages.
According to National Geographic News, some biblical scholars believe Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit on Friday, and that Abel was slain by Cain on Friday.
“There were 13 people at the table (at the Last Supper) and the 13th was Jesus,” Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, said in a press release from the institution. “The Last Supper was on a Thursday, and the next day was Friday, the day of crucifixion.”
Thus, the fear of seating 13 people to a table was born, Stevens said, creating panic that one of the guests would be marked for death. In fact, there’s an urban legend that if 13 people sit down to dinner, one of them will die within a year.
Scholars theorize that this was one of the first links between the number and the day of the week, even if they did not coincide with each other on the same day – the day after was close enough for most.
And in Stevens’ opinion, it’s likely that this link between death and the number 13 eventually spilled over into other aspects of daily life.
“Avoidance of 13 spewed into high-rise buildings,” Stevens said. “…and some airlines do not have a 13th row on their planes.”
Indeed, Dossey noted in his interview with National Geographic News that, more than 80 percent of high-rises lack a 13th floor. Many airports skip the 13th gate. Hospitals and hotels regularly have no room number 13. On streets in Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is addressed as 12 and a half.
So in theory, the combination of the number associated with death and misfortune, with a day of the week that is supposedly indicative of the same ill fate, would produce the most unlucky conditions possible. And this is likely the cause of the overwhelming panic, scholars and psychologists suggest.
In fact, between 17 and 21 million Americans have a phobia of Friday the 13th, Dossey’s research suggests.
According to author Barbara Maranzani, another popular theory as to how these two taboos became linked dates back to 1307 – when on a Friday the 13th, the French king gave the orders to arrest hundreds of Knights Templar, which resulted in their torture and ultimate execution by burning at the stake. Those who did not confess to the charges against them were left in captivity to die of starvation.
It’s unfortunate events like these, that occur on Friday the 13th, that may lead folks to believe the event has been caused by these “unlucky” omens, when in actuality, it may just be a coincidence.
“The mind is an associative system and if anything bad happens to you on Friday the 13th, the two will be forever associated in your mind…” said Thomas Gilovich, chairman of the department of psychology at Cornell University.
Indeed, psychologists seem to agree on the notion that whatever a person focuses on – in this instance, being fated to endure bad luck on a specific day – is more likely to make its presence known.
Here’s a great analogy of that, borrowed from Dr. Isaiah Hankel, a Fortune 500 consultant, international speaker, and author of “Black Hole Focus“:
Stop reading for a moment, and look around you. No, really! Look around you right this very moment, and find every single red object in the room. Count them. Remember them.
How many red objects did you see?
Now, without taking a second look (no cheating!), how many green objects did you see in that same room?
Hankel writes that, “if you followed the above directions, odds are you could only think of one or two green items, if any. This is how your perspective can affect your focus, and vice versa. If your perspective is too limited, you can completely miss what’s right in front of you.”
The difficulty is that when you’re only focused on finding the red items, you are overlooking the green ones. And when you take a second look, you will likely find that there are plenty of green objects around you as well.
We can apply this analogy to the mounting psychological fears that plague some people on days such as today: if you’re convinced that you’ll suffer bad luck on Friday the 13th, that’s exactly what you’ll encounter, simply because you’re anticipating it and heavily focused on it.
But it doesn’t mean that the day, or the number, had anything to do with what happened; it’s the fear and anxiety that drives you into a state of hyper-awareness, making you more likely to blow negative occurrences out of proportion and ignore anything positive that is simultaneously taking place.
Nonetheless, that negative event only further hardens your belief in Friday the 13th; your mind is convinced that your misfortune was a direct result of some external force that you cannot control, and now you’re even more convinced that force exists.
Missed the train on Tuesday the 22nd? It’s because you hit the snooze button one too many times.
But if you missed the train on Friday the 13th, you’re more likely to blame it on the fact that it’s because it’s Friday the 13th.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “confirmation bias”: the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.
Dr. Cortney S. Warren, an associate adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, suggests that humans blame their luck to avoid having to take responsibility for their actions. So when something goes wrong on Friday the 13th, you are able to tell yourself that it’s not because of something you did, it’s just bad luck.
Indeed, research suggests that this is often why those who hold superstitions will perform rituals to counteract bad luck – knocking on wood, throwing salt over your shoulder, crossing your fingers, etc.
We believe that these actions will help prevent the negative occurrences that we cannot control, when in actuality, it’s the belief tied to the performance of the ritual that affects the outcome, not the ritual itself, studies suggest.
Choosing whether or not to knock on wood – after uttering something thought to tempt fate and thus conjure bad luck – will not directly affect the outcome. The outcome will be the outcome regardless.
But studies show that if you wholeheartedly believe that knocking on wood will protect you, and then you subsequently perform that act, it does have the ability to make you feel impervious to the bad luck. This leads to increased confidence, and fewer feelings of fear, which produce a higher chance of a positive result.
For instance, a student who is terrified of public speaking is given a “lucky pebble” by his mother in advance of the speech. She tells him that he shouldn’t be nervous because as long as the pebble is in his pocket, it will bring him good luck. His belief in that token eases his anxiety and boosts his confidence, because he knows, without a doubt, that nothing bad can happen while he’s in possession of that pebble.
The result is that he does actually perform better, but it’s because of the feelings that his belief instilled in him, not because the pebble actually holds any magical luck within it.
So is Friday the 13th as unlucky as we’ve been led to believe? Yes and no; it’s largely dependent upon your perspective.