Where does the bad reputation of the number 13 come from?

More than 40 million Americans say they would mind staying on a certain floor in high-rise hotels: the 13th. According to the Otis Elevator Co., most tall buildings “pretend” they don’t have a 13th floor and jump straight to the 14th. Also, many Westerners change their behavior on the 13th, especially if it’s a Friday. Sure, sometimes bad things happen on this date, but there’s no evidence that they happen disproportionately, writes Barry Markovsky, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of South Carolina in an article published by The Conversation.

“As a sociologist specializing in social psychology and group processes, I am not so interested in individual fears and obsessions. What fascinates me is when millions of people share the same misconception to the extent that it affects behavior on a large scale. This is the power of 13,” the professor points out.

The origins of the superstition

The source of the bad reputation of the number 13– “triskaidekafobia”– is obscure and speculative, but an explanation could be the fact that it comes after 12, which is considered to bring good luck, because it represents the number of months in the year, the number of the gods of Olympus, the number of the zodiac signs and the number of the apostles of Jesus. Or, 13 contrasts with this belief of perfection.

The number 13 can be associated with some famous, but unwanted, dinner guests. In Norse mythology, the god Loki was the 13th to arrive at a feast in Valhalla, where he tricked another individual into killing the god Baldur. In Christianity, Judas–the apostle who betrayed Jesus–was the 13th invited to the Last Supper.

But the truth is that socio-cultural processes can associate bad luck with any number . When the conditions are right, a rumor or superstition generates its own social reality, snowballing and becoming an urban legend as time goes on.

In Japan, the number 9 is the one considered unlucky, probably because it sounds similar to the Japanese word for “suffering”. In Italy, 17 is the unlucky number. In China, 4 sounds similar to “death” and is more commonly avoided in everyday life than 13 in Western culture–the Chinese are even willing to pay an extra fee to avoid this number appearing in their mobile phone number. And while 666 is considered lucky in China, many Christians around the world associate it with the evil beast described in Revelation. There’s even a word for the fear of 666: hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, says Professor Barry Markovsky.

Social and psychological explanations

There are several types of specific phobias , and people maintain them for various psychological reasons. They can appear as a result of direct unfavorable experiences – fear of bees after being stung by one, for example. Other risk factors for developing a phobia include being very young, having disrespectful phobias, having a more sensitive personality, and being around other people with phobias.

) The bad reputation of 13 could be related to a belief of unfamiliarity. In the psychological literature it is called “perception of anomaly.” In everyday life, 13 is less common than 12. There is no 13th month, no 13-centimeter ruler, and no 13th hour on a clock face. , a belief of unfamiliarity will not cause a phobia, but psychological research shows that people prefer the familiar and disfavor the unfamiliar, which would make 13 easier to associate with unfavorable attributes.

Also, people can assign dark meanings to the 13th for the same reason many believe in “full moon effects”. Beliefs that the Full Moon influences mental health, crime rates, accidents and other calamities have been thoroughly debunked. However, when people seek to confirm their beliefs, they tend to make some connections between unrelated factors. For example, having a car mishap during a full moon night or on a Friday the 13th makes the event seem all the more memorable and significant. Once rooted, such beliefs are very difficult to remove, explains the American sociologist.

Then there are the strong effects of social influences. It takes a village– or Twitter– to get fears to coagulate around an innocuous number. The appearance of any superstition in a social group– the fear of 13, of going under the stairs, of not stepping over a crack, of knocking on wood and so on– is no different from the rise of a “meme” Although the term now most often refers to widely shared online images, it was first introduced by biologist Richard Dawkins to help describe how an idea, innovation, fashion, or other piece of information can spread through a population. In its definition, a meme is similar to a piece of hereditary code: it recreates itself as it is communicated between people, having the potential to mutate into alternative versions of itself.

Meme 13 is simple information associated with bad luck. It resonates with people for the reasons given above and then spreads throughout the culture. Once acquired, this pseudo-knowledge gives people a belief of control over the evils associated with it.

Wrong beliefs, consciences true

Public relations groups seem to feel the need to pander to popular superstitions, notes Professor Barry Markovsky. Perhaps because of the near-tragic Apollo 13 shuttle mission, NASA stopped sequentially numbering space missions, calling the 13th shuttle flight STS-41-G.

In Belgium, complaints from superstitious passengers led Brussels Airlines to renew its logo in 2006. It features a 13-point “b”-like design. The airline added a 14th point. And, like many other airlines, the line numbering in his planes jumps over the number 13.

Because superstitions are inherently incorrect, they are just as likely to do more harm than good–consider example only health harms.

“I wish influential organizations–perhaps even elevator companies–would rather warn the public about the dangers of clinging to beliefs incorrect than to continue to legitimize them”, concluded hide sociologist Barry Markovsky.


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