Abounding Superstition

It’s Friday the 13th, a day known (or at least joked) to be doubly unlucky. Not only is it the 13th day of the month, which everyone knows to be an unlucky number, for many reasons, but it’s also a Friday, an unlucky day to set out on a voyage, by nautical mythology. While not many people still seriously believe this superstition, there’s still an unconscious trend to be more careful today, and on every other Friday the 13th. Despite our more “rational” society, there are still numerous superstitions that sneak into our daily life, and little-known stories that created them. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Number 13: Did you know that many hotels and other buildings don’t have a 13th floor? Check the elevator buttons next time you’re in a tall building. They might go straight from 12 to 14. There’s no way, architecturally, to make the building not have a 13th floor, but in many cases it is not numbered as such. Fear of the number 13, triskadekaphobia, is fairly common, and could originate from either personal experiences, a confirmation bias about unlucky events, from mythology (the 13 people at the Last Supper in the Bible, for instance), or from cultural norms. In fact, 13 isn’t so unlucky in other cultures; in China, for instance, four is considered very unlucky, because it sounds nearly the same as the word for “death” (thanks to my brother for this tidbit of cultural knowledge).
  • Walking under a ladder: According to superstition, you’ll have bad luck if you walk under a ladder. Now, I personally think this one has some good sense to it: ladders are not always terribly stable, and walking under one seems like a good way to either get something dropped on you or knock the ladder over and hurt yourself and another person. As it turns out, though, the myth actually seems to originate from Christian mythology. Objects that formed a triangle were considered to be a sign of the Trinity, so walking through such a shape would be downright blasphemous.
  • Four-leaf clovers:The four-leaf clover is a somewhat rare mutation of the normal clover, having four leaves instead of three. Each of the leaves, according to tradition and a few letters from the 1870’s, is supposed to mean something: one for faith, two for hope, three for love, and four for luck. Near as I could find out, this is simply an old wive’s tales on uncertain origin; there’s no solid information that I could find.
  • Heads-Up Penny: This is a fairly new superstition, but it had old roots. Pre-industrial revolution, metal was fairly rare, and in old cultures it was considered a gift from the gods. When metal was used to make coins, these could be considered “lucky” as well, and carrying around a lucky coin was thought to bring wealth and repel bad luck.
  • Got up on the wrong side of the bed: Apparently, this saying is from the superstition that it’s bad luck to get out of bed on the opposite side from the one you got in on, or from the Roman myth that getting up from the left side or stepping with the left foot first would bring bad luck.

There’s a ton of other superstitions I could get into; the CSI has a good list of common ones. But why do we believe these superstitions? Most people joke about them, but still act on them. There is some evidence that people who believe in fate and chance are more likely to be superstitious. Particularly, this occurs when people feel helpless or out of control. It’s easier to avoid responsibility and consequences of bad outcomes by blaming it on luck. Confirmation bias then makes these superstitions seem valid. On the flip side, by having a lucky charm, some people feel more confident, which then creates good outcomes, and thus “confirming” the superstition. It doesn’t matter if it’s a penny, a rabbit’s foot, or a Powerband, the effect is the same. It’s real, but it’s not luck.

So don’t worry about a black cat crossing your path, or that someone’s casting a shadow on your grave when you shiver. Superstition can be fun, when used as a joke, but taking it as the folklore as it is, and control your own life.

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.


  1. May 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm —

    This is awesome, I can’t believe how common these beliefs still are! Had an important exam on the 13th and so many of the people in the hall were lamenting the date.

    • May 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm —

      I was really, really surprised that many buildings don’t number the thirteenth floor. I would like to look more into how many people actually believe this stuff, rather than joke about it and simply going along with it.
      I noticed the same thing with people complaining about due dates on Friday the 13th. It’s silly; you don’t fail a test or problem set. because of the arbitrary date designation given to a particular cycle of Earth’s spin. But even I catch myself blaming “chance” or “luck” for both good and bad things that happen. Just something to be aware of, I guess.

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