Kirsty Hall/Flickr

Superstition is a comforting notion, even if the phenomenon it describes is not. It lets us draw a circle around behavior we don’t understand, beliefs that we can’t quite inhabit. It would be, under normal circumstances, highly disconcerting to discover that for years a person has been carrying in their pocket the severed limb of a dead animal, but we tell ourselves that it’s a superstition to carry a rabbit’s foot for good luck, and that, somehow, makes us less uneasy about it.

Some of us, at least. There are others—latter-day rationalists, mostly—who find the mere existence of superstition disconcerting, since it implies the failure of humanity to function like the perfect belief-machines we should be. What are we doing, they ask, believing in dubious abstractions like luck and propitiating it with pinches of salt and unwashed laundry? Maybe we’re all a little prone to their disappointment, but some of us are more indulgent than others. Some even see it as part of what makes us human.

Take a literary type like Sadie Stein. Over at The Paris Review blog, she has observed the new year with a meditation on the number 13, and more specifically, on its omission from the enumeration of floors in New York City buildings, among other places. Nor does she seem particularly vexed by the practice, even calling it “supremely comforting.” One possible explanation, she suggests, is fear, but is that really likely? Could there be so many triskaidekaphobes to justify building the superstition in our architecture? Or maybe it’s a malady particular to architects, engineers, and other designers of high places.

In either case, there’s something strange going on here. It’s one thing to suppose that there are a handful of people who harbor these phobic quirks, and quite another for large swaths of society to indulge them to the point of designing around that fear. I’ve known plenty of people who fear dogs, and with much more explicable cause, but we rarely go so far out of our way to accommodate that fear as to pretend that dogs aren’t really dogs. After all, any building with more than twelve floors actually has a thirteenth; we’ve merely contrived to deny that fact. Some of us who don’t fear the number are even in on the conspiracy. It’s tentacles reach all the way to the upper echelons of the elevator industry. Why?

Stein introduces the formal fear lightly enough, and quickly passes it by in favor for a more general explanation. She concludes that, “it’s enough that on those days I’m too lazy to take the stairs I’m rewarded with a small mystery and with proof of our enduring irrationality.” Fear can make us irrational, which is why it’s so easy to draw the connection between triskaidekaphobia and the practice of omitting a thirteenth floor, even when we can’t point out the specific person responsible for the omission in order to confirm the diagnosis. But fear is not the only reason we behave without clear reason.

I’d like to float another possibility—that what we’re actually doing is playing a kind of game. You can think of it, perhaps, as a vertical innovation on hopscotch, with the marker placed permanently on the thirteenth square. Why we’d play that particular game is obscure. Traced far enough back, it might even point us back to some ancient fear. And while there’s historical interest in exploring the exact origin of any particular superstition, the bigger question is that of why we’d play games with superstition in the first place.

One reason may be simply that it gives meaning to things that might otherwise have only values. Boiled down to its essence, that’s the spirit of a game like the number superstition: behave as though this number means something it cannot rationally mean. On its own, thirteen is simply a unit, indistinguishable from other numbers save for where it falls in the sequence. By our careful avoidance of it, we make it into something more than simply the number between twelve and fourteen.

That, no doubt, is part of the rationalist’s objection: that thirteen is perfectly serviceable on its own. It needs no meaning. In fact, the meaning we’ve ascribed to it sometimes gets in the way of its utility, as when its absence from the sequence of floors in a hotel causes confusion. But by playing, we keep our options open. For one thing, we entertain the possibility that we live in a world where things have meaning apart from their utility.

Moreover, we get to do so in the normally idle trip from the lobby to the fourteenth. Which is, these days, where most of us would be squeezing in a round of Words With Friends anyway. Think of this as Numbers With Friends.

Nor is “with friends” the least important part of the equation. This isn’t a game we play alone. It couldn’t be, since the spirit of the game lies in our observance of an arbitrary social convention. If no one else, then, its players include the designer of the elevator and its passengers. Their knowing avoidance of the taboo is perhaps one of the subtlest forms of play in a culture that makes games of everything from sex to the economy.

Not everyone plays, though. There are the triskaidekaphobes to consider. Even when they make it to their destination on the fourteenth floor, glad to have avoided the ill luck of rising to the thirteenth, they’re not playing a game. For them, the taboo is not about maintaining a lease on different ways of viewing the world. They’re already convinced that the world is imbued with meaning, but no less arbitrary for it.

It’s also possible to imagine a rationalist so principled that he would refuse to press the button for the fourteenth floor, arguing smugly to anyone who will listen that it has clearly been mislabeled. To maintain the rational value of strict numeracy, he is willing to deny even a meaning that most of us are merely playing. If he happens to be on his way to your dinner party, that’s probably just as well. You can imagine what an insufferable bore he’d be.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.