Unlucky for some, unlucky for all

August 13, 1999

Thirteen is just another number, says Richard Wiseman, unless you plan to sing in the Eurovision Song Contest...

The bad news is that 1999 contains an unusually high number of Friday the 13ths. And today is one of them. The seriously superstitious will, no doubt, remain safely tucked up in bed until tomorrow. The sceptics will be equally happy to treat it like any other day. So who is right?

Believers argue that they have history on their side. Most dictionaries of superstition trace the origins of Friday the 13th to the 13 guests at the Last Supper and the crucifixion, which took place on a Friday. Sceptics argue that even if such accounts are historically accurate, there is no reason to think that events that occurred almost 2,000 years ago can influence the world today.

Other believers say that surveys show people in most European countries view the number 13 as unlucky and that surely so many people cannot be wrong. Sceptics counter with the fact that many of these countries share key elements of cultural heritage, including access to the Bible, and just because similar beliefs exist in different countries does not mean those beliefs are valid.

Finally, believers cite research that demonstrates that there are more transport-related accidents on Friday the 13ths than on Friday the sixths. In reply, sceptics point out that the researchers also noted significantly less traffic on the road on Friday the 13ths and that this may have caused unusual driving conditions, resulting in a higher accident rate.

A few years ago, in collaboration with Matthew Smith of Liverpool John Moores University and Peter Harris of the University of Sussex, I was funded by the Leverhulme Trust to conduct research into the psychology of luck.

In one study, conducted in conjunction with the BBC, we sent out 1,000 questionnaires to people who considered themselves exceptionally lucky or unlucky and intended to buy tickets for the National Lottery the following week. Before the draw, both groups of people were certain that their luck and superstitious behaviour would influence their chances of winning, with "lucky" participants being far more confident of winning than "unlucky" people. In the event, results of the draw revealed that the "lucky" people chose, on average, roughly the same number of winning numbers as "unlucky" people.

So we found no firm evidence to show beliefs in luck or superstition had any validity. But what our research did suggest was that some people seem to engage in superstitious behaviour in an attempt to gain control over chance events and reduce uncertainty in their lives.

We also found that for some people, superstitious beliefs are held with such conviction that they can become self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, carrying a rabbit's foot into a job interview may make them feel more confident and, in turn, increase their chances of performing well. A fear of Friday the 13th might make them feel anxious and cause them to have a minor accident.

Such effects may even have important international consequences. A few years ago, I examined 36 years' worth of Euro-

vision Song Contest results to find out whether artists performing 13th got more nervous than usual and received lower points than competitors. Countries performing 13th did indeed score lower.

This does not make superstitions right. While they may help some cope with uncertainty, they mostly represent the kind of irrationality that benefits no one.

Richard Wiseman is head of the Perrott Warrick research unit on parapsychology, University of Hertfordshire.

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