Born Lucky and Unlucky


On this past Friday, LiveScience’s entire daily newsletter was devoted to Friday the 13th and the concepts of good and bad luck.

The linked articles included “Why Do We Fear Friday the 13th?, ”Statistically Speaking, Is Friday the 13th Really Unlucky?,” What is the Origin of Friday the 13th?,” “Why Are Horseshoes Considered Lucky?,” and “Why Is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?”

From a broader academic perspective, the most interesting of these articles is the second, ”Statistically Speaking, Is Friday the 13th Really Unlucky?” The article includes this passage on one widely cited study:

A 1993 study published in the British Medical Journal indicates otherwise. Researchers analyzed the traffic flow and number of injuries from car accidents on the southern section of London’s M25 motorway during the five months that the 13th fell on a Friday between 1990 and 1992.

They compared these numbers to data collected on Friday the 6th of the same months, and found that although there are consistently fewer vehicles on the road during the 13th — possibly as a result of superstitious people choosing not to drive that day, the researchers proposed — “the risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent” on the 13th.

But before triskaidekaphobics, or those who fear the number 13, say “I told you so,” it should be noted that although the data were authentic, the authors didn’t mean for their conclusions to be taken seriously.

“It’s quite amusing and written with tongue firmly in cheek,” said Robert Luben, a researcher at the school of clinical medicine at the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s authors. “It was written for the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal, which usually carries fun or spoof articles.”

Many people took the study at face value and it continues to be cited as valid evidence regarding the misfortune of both the number 13 and Friday the 13th.

“(Some people) clearly didn’t understand that the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously,” Luben told Life’s Little Mysteries. “Many also assumed that the authors were ‘believers.’ I’m sure that most of these people hadn’t read the paper, which suggests that people being superstitious affects their behavior.”

I enjoyed the article, but I did not think much more about it. Then a story on CNN caught my attention and got me thinking about the concept of luck. The story featured a woman who survived the massacre at the country music concert in Las Vegas only to fly home and find that her family’s home had been completely destroyed in the northern California wildfires.

On the one hand, she was extremely unlucky to have been subjected to two such traumatic events in such a short period of time. On the other hand, she and her family are clearly lucky to have survived both very deadly events physically unscathed.

By definition, almost anything that is terrible but does not kill you can actually have had a worse result. So, every bad-luck story has an underlying element of good luck. On the other hand, it is equally true that at some point everyone’s luck does eventually run out.

When I was in my early 20s, I was badly burned in a gas explosion. My legs got the worst of it. I spent just over 70 days in a burn treatment center and then more than a year regaining my mobility. Each evening, a friend used to walk with me around our neighborhood. One evening he remarked that I was actually pretty lucky, not just because I had survived a terrible accident but also because, he reasoned, very few people go through something so terrible and so I was statistically likely to have a free pass for the rest of my life.

My wife has often marveled how I can be so non-religious and yet deeply superstitious. I have attributed my superstitions to my peasant ancestors. (I am not so far removed from them, and it is very likely that they were unliberated serfs well into the middle of the 19th century.)

In any case, my friend’s remark stuck in my head and provided some reassurance, I think, as I finally headed off to graduate school. But, at some point during those years, I became aware of a story that made me skeptical of my friend’s premise. It is very likely that I don’t recall all of the details exactly, but a family of four suffered a series of tragedies in a relatively brief time, suggesting to me that some people get much more than their share of bad luck. In this case, it started with the daughter. A very good student who had won academic scholarships and awards, she was brutally raped and murdered by a very casual acquaintance. About a year and a half later, her mother died from cancer. Then several years after that, her brother died in a fire. He had been working in a gas station, and they had been cleaning the concrete floor with gasoline when it had ignited. And some time after that, the father passed away, prematurely but not in any especially remarkable way. He had held some professional position, and the family had lived in a very nice sub-division in a suburb in which the affluent lived. They clearly could not have envisioned the horrible things that would happen to them.

My personal superstitions do not include any apprehension about Friday the 13th. In fact, they are more a reflexive impulse than a world view. For instance, if I make some banal assertion about myself, such as “I have not gotten a speeding ticket in several years,” I feel compelled to add, “But I guess that I just insured that I will get one tomorrow.” So, in line with the study summarized at the beginning of this post, I suppose that I am acknowledging that my sense of luck has more to do with my own subconscious programming of my own bad luck than with some sort of forces at work in the broader world. After all, if I get a speeding ticket, some sort of malevolent force is not pushing my foot down harder on the gas pedal. I may be very superstitious, but that doesn’t mean that I’m loony about it.


2 thoughts on “Born Lucky and Unlucky

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