Why Do Some Cultures Believe the Number Four Is Unlucky?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
the number four painted in white on a red backround
The number four elicits the same uneasiness in many Asian countries that we feel around the number 13 in the U.S. eyetwist / kevin balluff / Getty Images

You don't do it often, but today was payday and you're feeling lucky. It's time to buy a lottery ticket. As you stand at the counter and consider which numbers to choose, you weigh the options. You'll definitely add a 7 to the lottery ticket. Maybe an 11, too. But a 13? No way — everyone on earth knows that number is unlucky. Well, everyone in the United States, anyway.

If you lived in Asia, odds are you'd steer clear of the number four instead.


The Origins of Tetraphobia

In many East Asian cultures, including China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the number four is steeped in superstition. This fear of the number four, or tetraphobia, holds so much power that many buildings skip the fourth floor, much like how some Western buildings omit the 13th.

In Beijing, vehicle license plates avoid the number four, and in Singapore, the Alfa Romeo model 144 had to undergo a name change because potential buyers were too superstitious to purchase it. Even global brands like Nokia steer clear of starting their phone models with this number.


The root of this fear lies in linguistics. In Chinese, the word for the number four sounds eerily similar to the word for death. This phonetic resemblance isn't limited to just one culture. In Japan and Korea, the words for four and death are identical. In Japan, the number 49 is particularly dreaded as it sounds like the phrase "pain until death." [sources: Times of India, Today I Found Out].

The Impact on Business and Pop Culture

Tetraphobia, the fear of the number four, has a profound influence on business decisions in these cultures. To thrive, businesses often ensure their phone numbers, product serial numbers, and addresses are devoid of this number. Western companies like Four Seasons hotels or Foursquare sometimes consider rebranding to appeal to these markets. [source: Paris].

But it's not just businesses that are affected. In the world of movies, an action-packed thriller might avoid using the number four in its title to appeal to a global audience. Imagine if producer Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg had to consider this when naming their next big movie!


Beyond the Number Four

While the number four holds significant superstition in some cultures, it's essential to remember that every culture has its own set of beliefs and fears.

In the U.S., the number 13 is considered unlucky. In other countries, different numbers or symbols might hold negative connotations. It's a fascinating glimpse into how beliefs can shape behaviors and decisions on both personal and societal levels.


Four Noble Truths

Did you know that the "Four Noble Truths" in Buddhism, which originate from Asia, are central to understanding the nature of suffering and the path to enlightenment? It's an interesting contrast to the general fear of the number four in many Asian cultures.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Paris, Alyssa. "Tetraphobia and Doing Business in Asia." Acclaro. April 4, 2012. (Dec. 28, 2014) http://www.acclaro.com/translation-localization-blog/tetraphobia-and-doing-business-in-asia-252
  • Times of India. "China Stops Issuing License Pates with 'Unlucky' Number 4." Oct. 20, 2010. (Dec. 28, 2014) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/mad-mad-world/China-stops-issuing-license-plates-with-unlucky-number-4/articleshow/6780656.cms
  • Today I Found Out. "Why The Number Four is Considered Unlucky in Some East Asian Cultures." (Dec. 28, 2014) http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/01/why-the-number-four-is-considered-unlucky-in-some-east-asian-cultures/