In the email this morning was a short article on “Workplace Superstitions” sent to me in the Promotional Consultant Today newsletter. The author of the short article, Marijane Funess, talks about her own superstitions like wearing the same pants to business meetings or the same hat to her son’s baseball games.

Given that today is Friday the 13th, a short blog seems appropriate. According to some, fear of this date is the most widespread superstition in the US today. Some people refuse to go to work on this date, some won’t eat in restaurants and there sure aren’t many weddings scheduled for today (not that it would affect the divorce statistics all that much, in my opinion).


Legend has it: If 13 people sit down to dinner together, one will die within the year. The Turks so disliked the number 13 that it was practically expunged from their vocabulary (Brewer, 1894). Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. Many buildings don’t have a 13th floor. If you have 13 letters in your name, you will have the devil’s luck (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names). There are 13 witches in a coven.

There is even a phobia – Paraskevidekatriaphobics — for people afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th. The Fear Factor may be as high as 21 million Americans may have that – roughly 8% of the people! But the Chinese and ancient Egyptians consider the number lucky!

And if you are a movie goer or a Tom Hanks fan, there was also the possibility that it relates to The Crusades and The Templars. The Da Vinci Code holds that the stigma came about because of a single event that happened nearly 700 years ago in France. As recounted by Katharine Kurtz in Tales of the Knights Templar (Warner Books, 1995):

On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars — knights, sergeants, priests, and serving brethren — in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices. None of these charges was ever proven, even in France — and the Order was found innocent elsewhere — but in the seven years following the arrests, hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures intended to force “confessions,” and more than a hundred died under torture or were executed by burning at the stake.

Why are we superstitious? Well, it may have some adaptive benefits. Superstitious behavior is a response to an environmental situation. It is based, in part, on the belief that A influences or precedes B:

  • If you blow on the dice, you’ll get lucky and roll the number wanted.
  • Finding a four-leaf clover will bring you luck.
  • Eating this food at that restaurant will cause a Big Sale to occur for you.
  • Taking out a new / old / recovered golf ball will help you hit over the pond.
  • Wearing the same baseball socks will help the streak continue.

Superstitions can be positive, because they can focus attention on an upcoming event and that attention may improve performance. They can generate ritualized and rhythmic behavior, such as preparing to strike a cue ball in a game of pool – the professional players all go through a “pre-shot preparation” ritual that helps their performance.

And superstitions can be tied to the negative, an avoidance kind of thing that can decrease results. They share a lot of commonalities with phobias in that a belief about something impacts behaviors. Having a black cat walk across your path will NOT cause you bad luck. Wishing on the first star you see will not get that wish into reality by itself. Not blowing out all the birthday cake candles is not really a long-term problem for you.

Rituals can be good or bad, and some writers think that there might even be a biological basis and benefit for their existence! In the writings of Fuller Torrey in, “Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists,” a book I read dozens of years ago. He suggests that those people who believed in the healing powers of “the doctor” were more likely to live. By genetic selection, they would breed more with others of similar beliefs (since the ones that died would no longer be breeding, of course). So, the belief impacted the people. Today, we know that “The Placebo Effect” will cause a sugar pill to have the same positive impacts on some biological problem as does a medicine.  The belief that you are taking a cure will be as strong a positive factor as actually taking a drug to solve a medical problem. (Let’s not get into psychosomatic illnesses – the ones that people “believe” they have and which can cause them real problems.)

Most of us have some superstitions. Most of them are innocent and non-impactful. But some of them can be distracting and some of them, for a few, can be pretty debilitating when they manifest as full-blown phobic reactions.

Rituals can be good, if they prepare you for something like a presentation. There are a lot of things that presenters do that are “superstitious” in nature, like having a checklist of all the things they need to have in the room or that they want in particular presentations. There are rituals that teams go through before hitting the playing field. There are rituals we go through to prepare ourselves for the day! (Keep taking those showers, folks!)

As I generally say about the Square Wheels One cartoon,

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It is USEFUL to occasionally Step Back From The Wagon

It is helpful to view things from a dissociated, other-person’s-viewpoint than to look at things continually through your own eyes. Consider the situation like a TV Show, and instead of being the actor, choose to be the viewer. You can probably see things more clearly and less emotionally.

But me, I will continue to wear my Tar Heels baseball cap when we are playing and my Philadelphia Phillies cap when we make the Baseball World Series again. For now, I will keep that last one in the closet. And knock on wood, we will get there again soon!

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Note: There is a good bit of literature in the field of NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) that gets into the underlying anchors of behavior. Triggers are established between stimulus and event (classical conditioning) that often lead to superstitious behavior or phobias. NLP has techniques that can help deal with these clinical problems or to aid in the establishment of Positive Resource States that help support high performance. It is interesting stuff, for sure.

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. Connect with Scott on Google+