Numbers are part of everyone’s life. We use numbers to count things, to label things, even to describe the universe in which we live. They help us organize and make sense of the world around us. Numbers are practical. How much food do we have? How many weeks before the harvest begins? Numbers allow us to divide the day into manageable chunks, those days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years.
Given this, it is easy to believe that numbers play an important role in our day-to-day lives, but due to how our brains work, we ascribe special significance to numbers that goes beyond their practical value.
Lucky numbers. Unlucky numbers. We are all familiar with these, even if we don’t believe in their reputed powers. In the west, 13 is considered unlucky, while 2, 4, and 12 are considered lucky. In contrast, the number 4 is considered particularly unlucky in Chinese and other asian cultures because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death.
If number were truly lucky or unlucky you would think that the numbers that are considered lucky or unlucky, like the number 4, would be consistent across cultures. Of course, they are not, because there is no correlation between a particular number and any good or bad things that happen to us, except in the misguided significant we assign to them due to confirmation bias.
Humans have a need to make sense out of everything around us. This leads us to try to find purpose for events that actually have no purpose. We find it hard, if not impossible, to accept that things that happen to us could have no reason or purpose behind them. Our brains just aren’t evolved to think that way. Because of this, our brains construct explanations for inexplicable events. If something bad happens to us, then someone, either ourselves, someone else, or even a god or spirit must have done something to cause it to happen. The same goes for good things that happen. While the event was likely completely random, we need to make sense of it so we come up with a reason, no matter how strange or unlikely, to explain it.
This is where the ancient myths first came from. Our ancestors needed to understand why things happened, be it rain, drought, famine, or disease. These kinds of events brought great fear and much of this fear was due to the lack of control they had over these events. To understand how something works is to have control over it. To try to regain control and reduce the fear, they came up with stories of gods or spirits that cause these things. If they could somehow appease these gods or spirits, perhaps they could ward off these events in the future.
Of course, despite their efforts, diseases, famines and such kept coming, but now they could explain them by their actions of either doing what the gods wanted (when things went well) or displeasing them (when bad things happened). While the reality was that these events were mostly random, the need for their explanations to be true caused them to remember the times when events seemed to support their beliefs and forget the times that they didn’t. This confirmation bias continues to be the basis for our faith in gods, spirits, mysticism, and luck right up until today.