Oh dear, it’s Friday 13th today! Whether you are superstitious or not, you can’t help but notice this combination of day and date because it is so marked in cultural consciousness as being unlucky. You might not care about the number 13, black cats or any other superstition but as a risk intelligent person are you wondering whether drivers will be just a little more anxious than normal today? Or if important meetings will sour halfway through if the collective mood of the nation is punctuated with unease?
Perhaps, however, you are in China as you read this, where no one cares it’s Friday 13th. But did you notice any malaise in the ether on the fourth day of this month if you were there? Or in Japan? In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese the words “four” and “death” are pronounced almost identically. So despised is the number 4 in these countries that mainland Chinese omit the number 4 in designing military aircraft and some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms with 4. Multiply that dislike by nearly 1.5 billion people and it becomes worth asking what noteworthy effects the fear of number 4 might have. Can believing in superstition even be dangerous enough to hasten a stress-related death, such as the heart attack that kills Charles Baskerville in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel The Hound of the Baskervilles?
A group of Western and Chinese academics undertook research to ask precisely this question. Their objective was to determine ‘whether cardiac mortality is abnormally high on days considered unlucky’ and they did this by examining the numbers of cardiac and non-cardiac mortalities on or around the fourth of each month in groups of Chinese and Japanese people based in the US. Interestingly they found that cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese people peaked on the fourth of each month – the peak being particularly large for those with chronic heart disease. The study was done in the US with a non-Asian control group but the peak on the fourth of each month was particularly noticeable in California which has a high Asian and American-Asian population. Of course the number 4 itself isn’t dangerous the way a heart attack is but believing it to be gives it an indirect but quantifiable power, which is what these academics are suggesting.
The risk intelligent course of action would be to rationally acknowledge that numbers, even ones that sound like words, are just numbers and must be used as such. But to do away with superstition is to do away with deep-rooted parts of our cultural psyche, wherever we are from. Plus we may not be able to shrug them off at all. You can emigrate to a new life in the US but you can’t leave your fear of the number 4 neatly behind in China – as the cardiac statistics indicate. Also there are good traditions that would have to be thrown out if we treated all numbers the same, such as the Chinese belief that 8 is a lucky number and that cheques given as wedding gifts should contain as many eights as possible, ie £88.88. My guess is that our feelings about certain numbers are here to stay in some form or another, at least for the time being. Just don’t put a 4 on the cheque you give your Chinese friend on their wedding day.