Today is a good day for the superstitious to drive to the Netherlands, says freelance journalist Nigel Kendall
There is a chance that you are reading this while curled up at home with the draperies described and doorways locked, convinced that the best way to avoid the malevolent influence of Friday the 13 th is to avoid all human contact. If so, you aren’t alone.
The fear of a Friday that falls on the 13 th day of a month is thought to be the most widely held superstition in the English-speaking world. It’s so common that two distinct words have been coined to describe it: paraskevidekatriaphobia; and friggatriskaidekaphobia.
These tongue-twisting words can give a bogus scientific cachet to an irrational faith, conjuring up white coats and clipboards. And sure enough, there have been surveys. Serious studies.
One of the most widely cited, published in the British Medical Journal in 1993 , noted that traffic on a section of M25 on Friday the 13 th was 1.4% lower than on the previous Friday( is recommended that some people had bided at home)- while hospital admissions for road accidents in the M25 region were higher. The writers concluded:” The hazard of hospital admission as a result of transport accident may be increased by as much as 52%. Biding at home is recommended .”
Stay at home? On Friday the 13 th? It’s the last place you want to be- as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents never tires of reminding us:” More accidents happen at home than anywhere else .” Your lounge and living room are particularly hazardous. You’re far safer outside.
This is the Dutch solution, and according to reports, it runs. On a typical Friday in Holland, insurers expect to be notified of 7,800 traffic accidents, but when Friday falls on the 13 th it drops to 7,500. It could be that Dutch drivers are staying at home more carefully than their British counterparts, or are driving in superstition to drive with more caution.
In other terms, Friday the 13 th could be said to provide an excellent example of confirmation bias. If we walk down the street half-expecting something terrible to happen, we nearly feel rewarded if it does. This builds the bad event more memorable and intensifies the superstition around the conjunction of date and day. Usually you’d just chalk it up to experience. But on Friday the 13 th? Never. Imagine how satisfied the 13 people in this article felt when their worst dreamings came true.
Psychologists connect this bias to the human need to feel in control of events. If something bizarre or random pass, it’s easier to blame the calendar than to face up to difficult truths. Would the City’s” Black Friday” of 1989 still be name-checked so frequently if hadn’t also been 13 October?
Worryingly, according to a 2008 study published in Science publication, it’s precisely when things like a stock market crash happen that we humans are most likely to try to form patterns, correlations and conspiracies. When we arrive at the limits of our understanding, we reach for the consolation provided by superstition to maintain the illusion of control.
This is where religion comes in, and the most commonly cited origins of the Friday the 13 th myth go back to the number of diners at Christ’s Last Supper. However, we know that ancient Egyptians and Romans had both previously taken a dim view of the number 13.
Modern Romans, by contrast, have no strong impressions about it. In Italy, 17 is the number to watch out for, while in Greece and many Spanish-speaking countries it’s Tuesday the 13 th that you need to be wary of.
So, the next time there’s a Friday the 13 th– April 2018 – you may be better off taking a city break in Madrid. Or perhaps that would be seducing fate?
* Nigel Kendall is a freelance journalist and former senior content director at Guardian Labs
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