|Bad things happen every day, one psychology professor says, and they actually happen less often on the so-called unluckiest day. (Shutterstock)
There's nothing inherently unlucky about Friday the 13th, but it still keeps millions of North Americans safely bundled in their homes, avoiding work, chores and travel. It's a phenomenon that one psychology expert says can be largely attributed to a little chemical called dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that helps people to see patterns in the world around them. Seeing patterns is just a normal part of being human — something we're hard-wired to do.
But sometimes, people see patterns where there are none, Queen's University psychology professor Kate Harkness says. And the higher a person's levels of dopamine, the more likely they are to make these connections.
On one end of the spectrum, that means harmless superstition. A person might get some good news while wearing a certain hat, and from then on declare it to be their lucky hat. That's why some people grow playoff beards, avoid walking under ladders and steer clear of black cats.
It could also be why some $900 million is lost in business on Friday the 13th because many people stop flying or doing the business they would usually do, according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in North Carolina.
But on the other end of the continuum, people with extremely high levels of dopamine could have schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Someone might be convinced, for example, that if they don't wash their hands exactly 100 times a day, something bad will happen to their family.
"Ascribing a causal relation to something very arbitrary is something we all do, but it can become less normal and more pathological in these extreme cases. It's taking to an extreme something that's very normal and hard-wired in all of us," she said.
"We see patterns when those patterns really are just random and we're ascribing particular reasoning to those patterns. We're just, as humans, more likely to see bad things happen on Friday the 13th."
But bad things happen every day, Harkness said, and they actually happen less often on the so-called unluckiest day.
"Friday the 13th is a safer day because everyone's paying attention and being more careful. It's, in reality, the safest day to go in real life," she said.
And as for those few people who suffer a genuine, full-fledged phobia of Friday the 13th — clinically labelled friggatriskaidekaphobia — Harkness has some advice: "To get over your phobia, you just need to go out and face it."