Friday 13th and the “Hound of the Baskervilles effect”.

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.


Risk intelligence and creativity

Over the past few days a number of fashion designers have started following me on Twitter. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but whatever the reason was, it got me thinking about the role of risk intelligence in fashion, and in creativity more generally.

As my colleague at the American University of Beirut, Arne Dietrich, recently explained to me, creativity can be thought of as a product of two mental processes; one that generates new ideas, and another that evaluates these ideas. It is in the second of these processes that risk intelligence has a role to play.

Suppose a fashion designer is playing around with ideas for the next season. As new images flash across her imagination, she covers the pages of her sketch pad with simple line drawings. Then she puts down her pencil and reviews the designs she has generated. When evaluating these patterns, she will consider a range of criteria, some conscious and some implicit; her own aesthetic preferences, current trends in the fashion industry, technical aspects of production, and the likelihood that a given design will be unusual enough to get noticed and yet not so weird that it will never be worn.

Estimating that likelihood requires risk intelligence. A designer with low risk intelligence may overestimate the chance that a particular pattern will be a hit, or underestimate the probability that  a given design will catch on. A designer with high risk intelligence, however, will tend to get it just right, regularly providing realistic estimates of each new piece’s chances of becoming the must-have item of the season.

Good fashion designers construct mental models of what makes a good design slowly, often unconsciously, as they gradually accumulate experience.  These models may involve many different variables – the shape of the hemline, the way the folds fall, the texture of the material, and so on.  People with high risk intelligence manage to keep track of all these variables in their heads, but the process is unconscious; they need not be mathematical wizards, since most of the cogitation goes on below the level of awareness.  It is here that the difference between an average designer and an Alexander McQueen lies. Anyone can brainstorm a diverse range of crazy patterns; only a skilled designer can reliably pick out the ones that will sell.

God does not play dice

Einstein’s famous remark that “God does not play dice with the universe” was not of course a theological statement;  it was simply a vivid way of expressing his dislike of the notion of quantum mechanical probability.  Nevertheless, at the risk of making Einstein turn in his grave, I want to suggest that it does also sum up an important current in Western theology – namely, the supposedly sinful nature of gambling.

All three of the major monotheistic religions today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a dim view of gambling.  Some have even suggested that this may explain why it took people so long to develop the mathematical tools necessary to understand risk, despite the ubiquitous opportunities for studying it provided by gambling.  Dicing is one of the oldest human pastimes, dating back thousands of years, but theories of gambling and probability didn’t even get started until four centuries ago.  Is it possible that religious taboos may have been responsible for the time-lag?

I doubt it.  To blame religion would be to exaggerate the power of taboos.  As the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking points out, people have gambled like mad in both secular and pious societies, regardless of religious censure, and it seems unlikely that they would have stifled the development theories about gambling on religious grounds while ignoring the prohibitions on actual practice.  As Hacking notes, a first century citizen of the Roman empire with even a modest understanding of probability theory “could have won himself the whole of Gaul in a week.”  And he further adds: “The fact that some people were pious and others superstitious, far from preventing the opportunists of an opulent empire discovering some elementary arithmetic of dice, is a positive incentive.”