Posted by CSICOP - June 6, 2003


Horrified by Friday the 13th? Skeptics say, "Relax!"

Only one tragedy is certain for Friday, the 13th of June: it will be a day full of anxiety for friggatriskaidekaphobes-especially if they have to say the term for their phobia out loud. The label, with its origins in Nordic mythology (the goddess Frigga is the namesake of the fifth day of the week), and ancient Greek (triskaideka means "thirteen") identifies those who possess an overwhelming fear of Friday the 13th.

According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 9 percent of Americans say they are superstitious about the number 13. That translates into tens of millions of people living with a nagging angst about this otherwise unassuming number.

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, has examined many numerological superstitions. CSICOP's resident "friggatriskaidekaphobiologists" have plenty to say about the origins of the irrational fear of all Fridays numbered thirteen. Superstitions ease fears of the unknown and unpredictable. Even superstitions that increase anxiety serve the same purpose. Feeling that you "know" a certain day or object is unlucky gives you an illusion of knowledge and a false confidence that you can control outcomes by avoiding certain objects or activities on a certain day.

British psychologist and CSICOP Fellow Richard Wiseman, writing for the May/June 2003 issue of Skeptical Inquirer found in his research that being lucky or unlucky has much more to do with attitude and personality than what day of the week it is. In an article, titled "The Luck Factor," Wiseman writes: "Lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listing to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectation, and adopt a resilient attitude that transform bad luck into good." Superstitions such as Friday the 13th represent people's attempts to control the elusive factors, according to Wiseman.

How did thirteen, of all numbers, get a bad reputation? To understand one needs to know the history of twelve, says CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell. "The number twelve has traditionally represented completeness in mythologies and religions around the world," says Nickell. "There are twelve months of the year, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve signs of the zodiac and twelve apostles of Jesus. Thirteen exists just one digit beyond twelve, and is symbolic of the first departure from divine completeness or the initial step towards evil."

Friday has an equally bad rap, Nickell points out. According to the Bible, Eve gave the apple to Adam on Friday, the great flood began on a Friday, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday, execution day was Friday in Rome, and Good Friday exists because it is the reported day of Jesus' crucifixion. An English schoolboy allegedly proved mathematically that thirteen, when examined over a 400-year period, falls on Friday more than any day of the year. He was just a thirteen-year-old, of course.

But for all the fear of Friday the 13th, thirteen has a lesser known role as a lucky number. At the birth of the United States of America, thirteen colonies formed the new nation. A baker's dozen is considered a fortunate bargain, and if you are Jewish, reaching the age of thirteen is your lucky time for a bar- or bat mitzvah.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a 501(c) 3 non-profit educational organization founded in 1976 by Dr. Paul Kurtz of the State University of New York at Buffalo, in addition to Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and other leading scientists and writers dedicated to scientific literacy. The official Web site for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer is Contact: Kevin Christopher Phone: (716) 636-1425 ext. 218 Fax: (716) 636-1733 E-mail: