The new research focuses particularly on the presence of 4s and 8s in Hong Kong plates. There's a consensus in Hong Kong that '8', which rhymes in Cantonese with 'prosper' or 'prosperity', is a lucky number, whereas '4', which rhymes with 'die' or 'death', is an unlucky number.
Controlling for visual factors that affect price (for example, plates with fewer digits are more sought-after) Ng's team found that an ordinary 4-digit plate with one extra lucky '8' was sold 63.5 per cent higher on average. An extra unlucky '4' by contrast diminished the average 4-digit plate value by 11 per cent. These effects aren't trivial. Replacing the '7' in a standard 4-digit plate with an '8' would boost its value by roughly $400.
As well charting the monetary value of superstitious beliefs, Ng's study was also able to record how the economic influence of superstition varies according to ongoing macroeconomic circumstances. For instance, the presence of a '4' in a plate always drops its value, but during bad economic times, the diminution in value is greater. On a day that the stock market had dropped by 1 per cent, the 'cost' of having a '4' in a standard 4-digit plate was increased by 19.9 per cent. 'A "4" is bad,' the researchers wrote, 'but it is even worse in bad times.'
Curiously, the effect of ongoing market conditions on the impact of 4s and 8s wasn't equal. Changes to the stock market index exaggerated the 'cost' associated with an extra '4' on both 3-digit and 4-digit plates, but it only affected the premium associated with having an extra lucky '8' on 3-digit plates. 'We are not able to come up with a good explanation for the asymmetric effects,' the researchers said.
'We have shown that the value of superstitions can be economically significant,' the researchers concluded. 'We have also shown that some results are consistent with the view that people tend to be more superstitious in bad times.'
Ng, T., Chong, T., & Du, X. (2010). The value of superstitions. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31 (3), 293-309 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2009.12.002
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