Dear Doctor George...

I'm a superstitious person, so I didn't read your thirteenth question. I was afraid it would be unlucky. Could you please repeat it under a different number so that I could read it?

... Superstitious




Dear Superstitious...

Your fear of the number 13 is so common that it even has a name: triskaidekaphobia. Doctor George understands that it must make many people feel better to avoid the number 13 because there are lots of examples of avoiding it. For instance, hotel rooms and floors in high-rises go from 12 to 14.

Even if Question 13 had a different number, it would still be the 13th even if we called it the 14th, so we'd just be fooling ourselves. As in the Bard's famous statement about a rose smelling just as sweet under any other name, number 13 under any other name is still number 13.

In a sense the number 13 has had a sacred meaning for our country during its founding. For instance, there were thirteen original colonies, signers of the Declaration of Independence, stripes on our flag. In addition, the back of the dollar has thirteen steps on the Pyramid, letters in, Annuit Coeptis and in E Pluribus Unum, stars above the eagle, bars on the eagle's shield, leaves on the olive branch, fruits, and arrows held in the eagle's left claw.

As Doctor George mentioned, you're not alone in feeling superstitious. For example, imagine a baseball player hitting a game-winning home run after putting on dirty socks because he didn't have any clean ones, hit a game-winning home run, and concluding that his dirty socks were lucky. He then decides to never wear clean ones again. That's a case of mistaking coincidence for causation. The reality is that the baseball player just happened to be wearing a pair of dirty socks when he hit the home run. From that day forth, it may actually be true that the baseball player got more hits while wearing his dirty socks, but that's probably because his superstitious belief gave him confidence. And, if he won't wash the socks, he won't discover what would have happened if he were wearing clean ones. Thus, his superstition is never disproved. Likewise if you avoid reading the 13th question.

Our superstitious fear of something bad happening can also contribute to a bad outcome. For instance, if you had a job interview scheduled for Friday the 13th, your fear that something will go wrong could cause you to become so nervous and uncomfortable that you cannot present your best self. As a result, you could do poorly in the interview, fail to get the job, and blame it on the date. In reality, your poor performance was a self-fulfilling prophecy: you caused the event that you feared.

Superstitions help give some people a sense that they have some control in an essentially uncontrollable world. The thought that we can't control much in our lives causes anxiety. For some, their superstitions help ward off that anxiety. Convinced that something awful will happen, some people develop "obsessive-compulsive disorder". Their attempts to control their fears, compell them to perform rituals, such as compulsively washing their hands to help distract them from their fearful thoughts. Of course, it ultimately doesn't work, since facing one's fears is more effective.

Superstitions extend to not wanting to "jinx ourselves". When things are going well, we won't say something out loud for fear that saying it will hex our good luck – for example. someone saying:"I have never gotten a traffic ticket in twenty years of driving," and then getting a ticket the following day. What sounds more likely among these possibilities? Saying the words magically undid the good luck. Or, given the length of time between tickets, it was statistically likely that one was due – in other words, it was a coincidence. Or, the arrogance that led to bragging about not having a ticket led to careless driving. Or, that overly focusing on not getting a ticket resulted in driving irregularly. Of the four choices, superstitious jinxing is the least probable.

Ultimately, overcoming our superstitions involves dealing with our fear of loss. Unfortunately, life inevitably involves loss: loss of our youth, of people, of pets and, of other things we love. When it comes down to it, we are vulnerable to the vagaries of life. As it says in the Bible, "rain falls on the just and the unjust alike." For some, superstitions are a way to avoid, delay, or not recognize the loss. If we allow ourselves to accept and feel our vulnerability, and if we decide to live fully despite our fears, then superstitions will not rule us.

   Doctor George