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.

 

Scenario planning and probabilities

First, a caveat; I don’t know much about scenario planning, so the following comments may come across as rather simplistic to those well versed in this area.  Also, it is probably rather presumptuous to be so critical of something I know so little about. So consider this post as an opening gambit rather than a considered conclusion.

I recently exchanged a few emails with a guy who does scenario planning for a non-profit organization.  When I asked him if he got people to attach numerical probabilities to each scenario, he replied: “We don’t do probabilities, but instead run workshops and interviews to get a sense of where people’s mental models are in terms of how things might turn out.” The problem with this is that weasel word, “might,” which could mean anything from “extremely unlikely” to “almost certain”.

For example, suppose the folks at the Pentagon are mapping out possible scenarios that might follow a US invasion of Syria, such as:

  • Invasion is successful with minimal human and financial cost, Syrians welcome the troops and quickly set up a prosperous, democratic and liberal society that becomes a strong US ally and force for positive change in the Islamic world.
  • Invasion is a complete disaster with massive cost and casualties, resulting in a devastated Syria split into violent fiefdoms, including one run by Assad and another by Al Qaeda. The US is humiliated both militarily and by revelation of major scandals and atrocities. Many US troops are prisoners.

Plus various intermediate possibilities.

So far, so good.  The precise details in each scenario are not that important, since the scenarios are really just placeholders for a set of outcomes arranged in order of preference.  The real problems begin when we go from scenarios to decisions. For unless we have some idea of how likely each scenario is, it will be impossible to assess the expected utility of various mitigating strategies.  There may be no point in spending billions of dollars to avert a worst-case scenario if the probability of that scenario occurring is very low.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attaches numerical probabilities to various scenarios it discusses in its reports. Everyone else who does scenario planning should do the same.