5X5 Episode 61

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5X5 Episode 61
Friday 13th Superstition
13th March 2009

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5X5 60 5X5 62
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Friday 13th Superstition[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we are talking about paraskevidekatriaphobia.

R: Nicely said.

J: What was that?

E: That's an awful disease.

S: Which is an irrational fear of Friday the 13th.

B: Are there rational fears of Friday the 13th?

S: The irrational fear of Friday the 13th. The term was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey, who was a specialist in phobias. And yes, it refers to an irrational fear of Friday the 13th. Not just the movie series starring—what was it, Freddy Kruger?

R: Yeah, no Jason.

S: Jason.

E: Jason Voorhees was the character.

S: Jason Voorhees.

J: So Steve, I have—my first question about this is, when you say an irrational fear you're talking about like someone who just might mildly think, "Oh you know its Friday the 13th; I got to be careful" or are we talking about, like, phobia level, like, don't leave the house, totally freaked out. What are we talking about?

S: Well, that term specifically refers to a phobia, so you need to meet the criteria for that. It's not just getting creeped out because its Friday the 13th or just having superstitious belief about it. You actually have to alter your behavior in order to qualify. According to polls, about 10% of the U.S. population have some belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day. Of course, those surveys always depend on exactly how the questions are asked. And this is a not uncommon superstition, a belief in something magical or irrational largely based upon confirmation bias. You think that there is this correlation and then you look for instances that support that belief and you dismiss exceptions as the exceptions that prove the rule, essentially.

E: Folks are going to have a tough time this year because we actually have three Friday the 13ths. This year we had one in February; we're having one, well, right now —this month of March and also in November again we have a Friday the 13th coming up.

B: This is actually a combination of a couple fears. One is a fear of Friday, which is kind of odd but some believe that this kind of fear came about because one possibility was that Christ was crucified on a Friday, which was the execution day among the Romans, apparently. Let's see... Friday was also hangman's day in Britain, so all of this might play into that fear and it's also, I think, the bigger fear of the number 13 itself. And that is called triskaidekaphobia. That is very prevalent, at least in the United States, and people believe that possibly this originated from 13 people at the Last Supper; others think that it might have to do with Loki, the Norse God of Evil, who apparently started a riot when he crashed a banquet at Valhalla attended by 12 gods and he made the 13th.

S: That Loki; he's a crazy.

B: Yeah to this day I remember my mother-in-law actually is not comfortable when there are 13 guests seated at dinner and she will take steps to make sure that it's one less or one more, at least.

J: Is that why she uninvited me, Bob, that one time?

B: I can't talk about that.

R: There have been a lot of studies done on whether or not Friday the 13th actually is unlucky. Because if you think of it even from a skeptical standpoint, it stands to reason that if people believe that its unlucky they may behave differently and therefore end up causing trouble accidentally. There was a study[1] back in 2004, I believe, that looked at road accidents and whether or not people get injured more on Friday the 13th. And one study did find that females tended to be injured more often, which caused a bit of a stir when it first came out, but then there have been a couple of follow-up studies that have shown no such effect, so it probably wasn't really all that valid.

J: There is a book written by Richard Wiseman called The Luck Factor in which they study the concept of luck over a 10-year period with people and they basically conclude that people make their own good or bad luck, so you know, your state of mind definitely can have an effect on you know how things turn out for you.

S: So expectation becomes partly a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to luck but I imagine with Friday the 13th, as Rebecca said, it's not possible to really document it with a well-controlled study and any effect is probably minimal. And again we come back to perpetuation being partly cultural. I think most people probably look at it as fun just to talk about Friday the 13th being unlucky. In recent years, skeptics in fact have taken to having Friday the 13th parties—

E: That's right.

S: —where they deliberately break as many superstitions as possible.

E: We did that one year.

S: Yeah, like breaking mirrors and walking under ladders, et cetera. But it remains in our culture the most common and widespread superstition and for skeptics I think it's just one more thing specifically not to worry about.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


  1. PubMed: Traffic deaths and superstition on Friday the 13th
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