Mingling with different cultures is a great way to learn new things. Everyone of us brings unique things, that makes a cross-cultural study environment such a diverse and rich learning experience. Last week was the Chinese New Year, and the group in our class was discussing and reviewing the following paper-
The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: natural experiment on the influence of the psychological stress on the timing of death (DP Phillips, GC Liu, et al, 2001)
I haven’t referenced it properly here, but that is okay. What I found interesting in this paper was the fact that Chinese and Japanese people consider the number “4” unlucky. “In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, the words DEATH and FOUR are pronounced almost identically”. It seemed funny to me at first, but then again, aren’t there similar notions attached to the number 13 by many people? What was more incredible was the fact was the finding that on the fourth day of the month, cardiac deaths were significantly more frequent than on any other day. The paper discussed experimental designs to test the validity of the finding. Much to my amazement, the hypothesis did have substantial validity, the mortality peak on the fourth day of the month being called the “Baskerville Effect” (After the hound of Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Evidently, the deaths are mainly due to chronic heart diseases, reasserting the proposed hypothesis that cardiac mortality increases on psychologically stressful occasions.
Now what does it translate into from a layman’s point of view? That more people die on the 4th of any month compared to the other days, just because the way the words “four” and “death” is pronounced is similar? Apparently that seems to be the case, though in not so much of a cut and dried way. It is more of a cultural phenomenon with unpleasant associations, and it seems that the number 4 evokes discomfort and apprehension in some members of the Chinese and the Japanese population. “Some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms 4. Mainland Chinese omit the number 4 in designating military aircraft—an omission said to result from the link between “four” and “death”. Some Japanese people avoid travel on the fourth of the month, and some
Chinese patients are apprehensive about this date. Aversion to the number 4 is also evidenced by Chinese and Japanese restaurants, which avoid this number”
Four and death have similar pronunciations in the native language. However, the pronunciation of 13 in English is not related to death. This apparent lack of “linguistic link” may explain why English population shows no peak in mortality during the 13th day of the month.
Personally, I didn’t really want to shrug off the hypothesis till there were stronger evidences to disprove it. It might sound incredible, but incidences happening a certain number of times in a distinct pattern changes intangible beliefs into science, provided of course there is a suitable logic to back it up. My Chinese friends were reluctant to speak about this issue on an auspicious day, which in itself showed their strong beliefs. They did accede that most people strongly associated the number four with death.
Now, I hadn’t heard anything like this before, and this got me thinking. I personally have some strong associations with the number 4, not that I am a believer in numerology. I was born on the 4th day. For quite a few years, my roll number has been 4 in school. My name starts with the 4th alphabet. I thought I had found true love when I was in class 4 (don’t even ask me about it ! I still know the guy !). This is the 4th city I am living in. I don’t even have any issues with the number 13. I had applied to 13 US schools a few years ago, and my family had some qualms about it. I wasn’t trying to prove a point, 13 happened accidentally, and I let it remain that way. Big deal. I don’t really have issues with numbers or alphabets as such. However, your perspectives and comments would make the discussion here all the more interesting. If you are looking for the paper and are unable to find it, please drop me an email. It's past 4 am, and I must sleep now.