Friday the 13th: Science Explains Why We’re Superstitious

Society can't shake magical thinking. 

There isn’t a logical reason for Friday the 13th to be such an unlucky occurrence, and yet the tradition of fearing it has not subsided with time. Researchers point to noticeable impacts on the jinxed day and data shows that even the least religious among us can indulge in its superstition. There is no science to prove that Friday the 13th has real consequences, but it’s been proven that many people still expect those consequences, anyway.

“Triskaidekaphobia,” or fear of the number 13, is believed to have begun around the Middle Ages. It may have originated from the story of Jesus at The Last Supper and the bad luck that Judas, the 13th guest, brought on that fateful night before Good Friday. But in several traditions, numerologists have seen 12 as a “complete” number — 12 gods of Olympus, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 signs of the zodiac, etc. — and 13 may have become associated with a punishment for excess.

Multiple studies have suggested that not even scientists are immune to magical thinking. In one study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT revealed an inclination to attach a purpose to natural events. Another study from Jane Risen, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found that people who identify as superstitious and non-superstitious both believe bad outcomes are more likely when a person is jinxed. In other words, if someone says “I definitely won’t get into an accident,” even the non-superstitious start to suspect that the person will.

Despite its religious origins, atheists aren’t immune to fearing curses, either. In a study from International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Marjaana Lindeman of the University of Helsinki found that non-believers began to sweat and became emotionally distressed when asking God to do terrible things. After testing how participants were stimulated by these requests for God’s wrath, Lindeman’s testing concluded that “asking God to do awful things was equally stressful to atheists as it was to religious people.”

While it seems like no group can resist the fear of a jinx, hex, or curse on Friday the 13th, Risen’s behavioral study did offer a strategy for reversing the bad luck. After applying five experiments across a group of superstitious and non-superstitious people, her team found that superstitious rituals such as knocking on wood or throwing salt decreased the participants’ perceived likelihood of negative outcomes and calmed their fears.

Thanks to the uptick of non-superstitious types indulging in magical thinking, scientists are beginning to see it as a side effect of socially adaptive thinking. So if all it takes to cure one’s triskaidekaphobia is to knock on wood, maybe go ahead on knock on wood.

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