Q&A with Friday the 13th debunker Stuart Vyse
Behavioral psychologist Stuart Vyse is an expert on superstition and irrational behavior who has been published on The Atlantic, the Observer and Medium. Staff writer Krupa Kaneria spoke with him about psychology, his new book “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition” and Friday the 13th.
The Daily Tar Heel: Why do people believe in Friday the 13th?
Stuart Vyse: There is history behind it — this is an old, traditional superstition. Superstitions come in different forms. This is one that is usually referred to as a socially shared superstition. It’s one that you learn just by growing up and being in the culture. Everybody knows about Friday the 13th, and it has an old origin. There have been a number of conflicting stories about how it might have started, but the one that seems to have the most evidence behind it is that it is tied to The Last Supper and the idea that 13 people sitting at a table is unlucky. There are quite a few stories that involve a group of 13 people being unlucky. It’s bad to have 13 people at the same dinner table, for example. And also, the crucifixion, I believe, was supposed to have been on a Friday.
DTH: How do you think people who are superstitious should deal with Friday the 13th?
SV: The way to deal with it is to not change your patterns. Once you begin to avoid things because it’s Friday the 13th or because it’s the thirteenth day or some other superstition applies, then you are, in a way, reinforcing the anxiety about it. For example, studies have been done about hotels that are over 13 floors high, and something like 13 percent of Americans said that they would be bothered by being given a hotel room on the 13th floor of a hotel. And something like 9 percent of them said that they would be bothered badly enough that they would ask for a different room. I would recommend that you go ahead and just take that room, despite the fact that it may make you a little nervous. Confront the fear, and go ahead and make the same plans that you would normally make for that Friday.
DTH: Were you ever superstitious?
SV: No, I am not at all. I never have been, but I will tell you that I think we are all susceptible to it. I don’t think that there is anything special about the people who are — it’s just the luck of the draw. I did not grow up in a superstitious family. I think that makes a difference.
DTH: What is the most bizarre superstition that you have ever come across in your career?
SV: There are a fair number of exam-related superstitions. One person that I heard about had a superstition that they had to go out and find a penny before they took an exam. And this sometimes meant the time spent looking for the penny could have been spent studying for the exam or resting. Another example like that was someone who, for luck, bought a lottery ticket before taking an exam. The idea was that, by scratching off the ticket, they would have used up their bad luck for the day and then they would go into the exam and have good luck.