Is Friday the Thirteenth Unlucky?

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Ironically, fear of
Friday the 13th, along with the number 13 and bad things happening in threes,
comes third in the list of superstitions Americans are most likely to endorse
(9%; Vyse, 1997). It is only beaten by black cats crossing your path (endorsed
by 14%) and walking under ladders (endorsed by 12%). But, where does this fear
of Friday the 13th come from and is it justified?

The origins of
triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, are thought to go back at least to medieval
times, perhaps further, to the Romans. Some suggest the unlucky association
comes from Christianity: at the last supper Christ dined with his twelve
apostles, so altogether there were thirteen.

Fear of Fridays is
thought to come from the Christian belief that it is the unluckiest day of the
week because Christ was crucified on Good Friday. Also, Scanlon et al. (1993)
report many other regional fears about Fridays: apparently you shouldn’t cut
your hair or nails or call a doctor for the first time (it means certain
Unlucky drivers

Back in 1993 a group
of researchers decided to meet this superstition head on with cold-headed
empiricism. Scanlon et al. (1993) used three measures to try and work out if
Friday the 13th is really unlucky for some, comparing each of the following
figures with the previous Friday. They looked at the number of shoppers in
supermarkets, vehicles on the motorway and hospital admissions from accidents.

They found that on
Friday the 13th fewer people were driving and there were more transport
accidents despite there being less vehicles on the road. People were, however,
undeterred from shopping. Surprise, surprise.

Spooky? Maybe not.
Along with the authors themselves, critics have pointed to a tiny sample and
the fact that this is just one study.
Let’s try again

In a larger sample,
Nayha (2002) used data from deaths between 1971 and 1997 in Finland for how
many people died in traffic accidents on Friday the 13th compared to other
Fridays. They found that for men, Friday the 13ths were no more dangerous than
any other Friday. But for women there was actually a much higher chance of
dying in a traffic accident – the risk was raised by a massive 63%.

Before we all jump
to sexist conclusions about dangerous, superstitious female drivers there’s bad
news for Nayha’s study. Radun and Summala (2005), reanalysing the data, found
no such effect. They argue that Nayha’s results were just a statistical
anomaly. Back to the drawing board on that one.
Still waiting for
the answer…
So, it seems we’re
still waiting for solid evidence that Friday the 13th is really as unlucky as
both tradition and superstition would have us believe. Perhaps because of the
well-known bias against reporting non-significant or negative results, there is
really evidence out there that Friday the 13th is quite safe but it is just not
being published. Meta-analysis anyone?

Either way I hope
blogging on Friday the 13th won’t bring me any bad luck. Fingers crossed. Touch
(Scanlon et al.’s
(1993) research, published in the British Medical Journal, comes right after a
report in the decline of doctor’s wardrobes. In particular, it bemoans the
disappearance of bow ties, because they are considered more hygienic than their
longer cousins. This isn’t relevant, it just amused me.)
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy
Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in
psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in

He has been writing
about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the
book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.