Release Date: February 9, 2004 This content is archived.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Friday the 13th's" association with bad luck is one of countless examples of humankind's universal predisposition for magical thinking -- the belief that thoughts, words or actions will produce an outcome that defies normal laws of cause and effect, says Phillips Stevens, Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo.
Stevens, a renowned anthropologist who studies the origins of cults, superstitions and cultural identities, says Western culture's fear of Friday the 13th and the number "13" most likely started in the Middle Ages, originating from the story of Jesus' last supper and crucifixion.
"There were 13 people at the table (at the Last Supper) and the 13th was Jesus," explains Stevens. "The Last Supper was on a Thursday, and the next day was Friday, the day of crucifixion.
"When '13' and Friday come together, it is a double whammy for people who have these kind of magical beliefs," he says.
The "13" taboo may have begun with Christianity, but it spread throughout Western cultures, regardless of its religious origin, Stevens says. For example, it became taboo to seat 13 people at the table; large formal state dinner parties never sit 13 at the table, he says.
"Avoidance of 13 spewed into high-rise buildings," Stevens adds. "You will not find one 13th floor in any building, and some airlines do not have a 13th row on their planes. I personally have made a point to check."
Other examples of magical thinking, Stevens says, include: not touching someone's crutches, as if the lameness were contagious, and avoiding stepping on cracks because cracks imply "damage."
Stevens cautions that most anthropologists avoid using the term "superstition," to describe the cultural taboo associated with "13" because the word's Latin root "superstitio" means "looking down upon; having a better explanation than the other."
"Anthropologists try to adopt a cultural relativism about this," he says. "Magical thinking is absolutely universal to all people."
John Della Contrada
Vice President for University Communications
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