Cover Image: Elevator buttons from the Flamingo Hotel & Casino, site of CSICon 2019. (Author photo)
In my May/June 2020 column, I described the influence of feng shui on the Chinese real estate market. Although it would be hard to match the pervasive presence of traditional Chinese superstition in real estate and other areas of commerce, the Chinese are not alone. One of the most interesting survey results I’ve ever come across is a 2007 Gallup poll that showed that 13 percent of American adults would be bothered if given a hotel room on the thirteenth floor (Carroll 2007). Not only that, but 9 percent of respondents said they would be bothered enough to ask for a different room. As is the case for many traditional superstitions, the majority of those who said they would be bothered were women.
These findings have important business implications. No hotel owner wants to have a problem at check-in with 13 percent of their customers, so it makes business sense to skip the number thirteen on the elevator panel and avoid the problem.
That is exactly what many developers have done. According to a 2015 story in the Atlantic (published on Friday, July 13), the real estate website CityRealty.com conducted a study of 629 condominium buildings in Manhattan that had thirteen or more stories and discovered that 91 percent omitted the thirteenth floor, labeling it fourteen or other variants, such as 12B or 14A (Li 2015). Similarly, the sixty-story Millennium Tower, built on the site of the former flagship Filene’s department store in downtown Boston, opened in 2017 with neither a thirteenth floor nor a forty-fourth floor (Clauss 2016). As mentioned in part 1 of this series, four is considered an unlucky number in Asian culture, and the Millennium Tower developers have eliminated the inauspicious forty-fourth floor in deference to potential Asian buyers.
All this bowing to superstition continues despite some anecdotal evidence that the thirteenth floor is not scary for most buyers. Alexandra Bellak, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, said in the Atlantic that he’d never had a buyer reject a thirteenth-floor apartment (Li 2015). Similarly, Jonathan Miller, a New York City–based appraiser and president of Miller Samuel Inc., said in the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve done lots of floor-level studies, and I haven’t seen anything that suggests it sways consumer behavior or impacts value or marketability” (Tanaka 2013). But developers are apparently very cautious. Eliminating the thirteenth floor protects property values and has the added benefit of suggesting the building is a little taller than it actually is. However, a few developers are bucking the trend. For example, in recent years Toll Brothers has built several residential buildings in New York City with identified thirteenth floors. David Von Spreckelsen, division president of Toll Brothers City Living in New York, said, “I think it is a silly thing to be afraid of” (Tanaka 2013). Furthermore, there is a real estate investment firm in Miami called 13th Floor Investments (https://13fi.com/). Their real estate developer affiliate is called 13th Floor Homes (https://www.13thfloorhomes.com/).
Bargain Hunting on the Thirteenth Floor in Moscow
By geographical size, Russia is the largest country in the world, dominating Asia from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, yet despite its physical proximity to China, Russia’s numerical superstitions are more European than Asian. Unlike in the United States, Russian developers do not avoid making buildings with identified thirteenth floors. Instead, some offer a discounted price for apartments on the thirteenth floor. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making tried to determine whether the discounts—typically 10 percent—offered to Muscovite homebuyers for apartments on the thirteenth floor were sufficient to compensate for any superstitious reluctance to buy. The researcher, Dmitry Burakov (2018), took actual real estate data from the city of Moscow, which happens to be experiencing a period of rapid development. He separated out those developers who offered a thirteenth-floor discount and those who did not, and he also looked at the number of units sold on the seventh floor—presumably a lucky location. To control for other factors that might have affected the popularity of the units, Burakov selected buildings where the layouts of the units were the same on the floors above and below, making it possible to compare sales of the sixth and eighth floor units to the seventh floor, as well as sales of the twelfth and fourteenth floor units to the thirteenth floor. Finally, Burakov identified thirty buildings where no thirteenth-floor discount was offered and ten where a 10 percent discount was offered.
Burakov’s results were clear. He found no significant effect on apartments on the lucky seventh floor, but he found a very strong thirteenth floor effect. In buildings where no discount was offered, substantially fewer units were sold on the thirteenth floor (see Figure 1). However, in the buildings where a 10 percent discount was offered for apartments on the thirteenth floor, the superstitious effect was completely eliminated. Fear is a great motivator, and evidently fear of the thirteenth floor is alive and well in Moscow. It is somewhat surprising that the Russians have not taken the lead of real estate developers in the United States and other countries by skipping the thirteenth floor, but perhaps, like American developer David Von Spreckelsen, they think it is silly to change the numbers on the elevator panel.
Vastu Shastra: The Indian Feng Shui
In the previous installment in this series, I discussed some of the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system of design that claims to maximize the flow of positive chi (a presumed life force) to promote health and prosperity. Although it is less well-known in the United States, there is a similar architectural system in India: vastu shastra, derived from the vedas, the ancient Sanskrit texts that are the source of Hinduism. In the United States, vedic architecture has been most actively promoted by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2008), the developer of transcendental meditation who gained popularity when the Beatles visited him in India.1 The Maharishi promoted his own version of vedic architecture, Maharishi vastu, that he said creates “cosmic harmony and support to the individual for his peace, prosperity, and good health” (Fortune Creating Buildings N.d.).
Many of the buildings on the campus of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, are built in accordance with Maharishi vastu. Although feng shui suggests that the entrance of a building should face south, vedic principles require that the building face east so that the rising sun’s most nourishing energy falls on the house (Fortune Creating Buildings N.d.). Maharishi vastu also requires that a home have a quiet area in the center of the house, known as a Brahmasthan, or a “place where wholeness resides” (Fortune Creating Buildings N.d.). Many vastu homeowners place a small table decorated with flowers or a vase in the middle of the building, and a skylight is sometimes placed over the Brahmasthan. In addition, Maharishi vastu buildings display a conical object on the roof, known as a kalash. The kalash is said to “[enliven] the connection of the house with the cosmos” (Fortune Creating Buildings N.d.).
As you may have guessed, just as in the case of feng shui, there is no scientific basis for the claims of vedic architecture. In preparation for this article, I did a literature search using the terms vedic architecture and Maharishi vastu. Vedic architecture produced several hits for studies of “vedic multipliers” for use in computers. Some of these articles are published in what appear to be disreputable predatory journals, such as the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. In this context, vedic architecture refers to the hardware architecture of the computer.
Searching for Maharishi vastu revealed a 2019 article titled “Architecture and Creativity: Examining the Impact of Maharishi Vastu on Workplace Creativity” (Maheshwari and Werd 2019), published in Creativity Research Journal (a legitimate journal produced by the Taylor & Francis Group). Unfortunately, this ranks as one of the worst articles I have read in many years. In my opinion, it should never have been published. The article is essentially a replication of a famous Western Electric study that produced what is known as the “Hawthorne effect” (McCambridge et al. 2014), one of the most famous of confounding variables in psychological research. Anil K. Maheshwari and Margaret Rose P. Werd conducted a pre-post case study without a control group. They located a company that was moving from their previous offices into a new building designed using the Maharishi vastu architectural principles. The participants in the study were the employees of an unnamed “engineering and architectural firm” (Maheshwari and Werd 2019, 373) who were given a standard test of creativity in the old building and a different version of the same test four months later in the new building. The results showed a significant increase in originality at the second testing in the new building.
It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the flaws in this study. First, there is no control group, so we have no idea what effect a similar move to a non-Maharishi vastu design building would have produced. The stated reason for the move was that the company “needed more space to accommodate future growth” (Maheshwari and Werd 2019, 373), so there was presumably more room in the new building. Furthermore, little effort was made to avoid the Hawthorne effect, which is produced when participants know they are in a study. Back in the 1950s, a series of industrial psychology studies were conducted at the Hawthorne Works, a large Western Electric factory in Cicero, Illinois. According to legend, in some of the studies, workers—who knew they were being observed—appeared to improve performance no matter what the researchers did: increased lighting led to faster work; decreased lighting led to faster work. The specifics of the Western Electric study have been debated, but what are now more often called the “demand characteristics” of a study involve participants knowing they are being studied and reacting to that knowledge in some way—most often by trying to help out the experimenter (Orne 2009). In the case of the Mahashwari and Werd (2019) study, participants were told they were part of a “relocation study,” but, of course they were given a creativity test first at the old building and then a similar test at the new one. It would not be very difficult for the employees of an architectural firm to figure out what the desired outcome for this repeated testing might be.
In addition to these experimental design flaws, the authors state they have no conflict of interest, but they are based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, the primary center of transcendental meditation and the study of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s philosophy in the United States. They may not have benefitted financially from the study, but it would have been better to have Maharishi vastu architectural principles tested by an independent research group rather than by a university so closely connected with the Maharishi. It is also standard practice to include a section near the end of a research article that discusses the limitations of the study to place the results in context; however, this section was not included by Mahashwari and Werd. (Much of the previous paragraph could have appeared in a limitations section.) Finally, if there were not enough reasons to be skeptical of this research, the authors identify Maharishi vastu architectural principles as the presumed cause of the observed changes in creativity. These included alignment in an eastern or northern direction because it “is said to bring about auspicious influences of good health and wealth” and rooms designed to “strengthen the connection of individual intelligence with cosmic intelligence” (Mahashwari and Werd 2019, 372). The authors offer no explanations for how the orientation of building promotes good health and wealth and provide no definition of the term cosmic intelligence.
I am going to step out on a limb here and say that, despite the study by Mahashwari and Werd, there is no more scientific support for the claims of vedic architecture than there is for its Chinese cousin, feng shui. So far, the influence of vedic architecture on the U.S. real estate industry seems to be quite modest in comparison to that of the far more prominent feng shui. The website of Fortune Creating Buildings, a firm that specializes in Maharishi vastu architecture, features pictures of beautiful, peaceful-looking homes. At this point, transcendental meditation is a minor movement in American society, and these homes are likely to appeal to a small group of upper-middle-class people who are swayed by the unsubstantiated claims of vedic architecture. Feng shui will continue to be a much more powerful force in the real estate market because it is so deeply imbedded in Chinese culture.
Here in the West, I see little hope of overcoming the thirteenth-floor problem. The Moscow study shows that the number thirteen has a substantial effect on apartment prices there, and the American strategy of eliminating the number thirteen from building labeling is likely to sustain the effect of the superstition rather than diminish it. If there is an overall message to be taken from this two-part series on superstition in real estate, it is that, when superstition is present in the consumer marketplace, it can either increase profits (lucky colors and numbers) or decrease profits (the number four or thirteen), but it always maintains belief in irrational notions of good and bad luck.
- According to Rolling Stone (Chiu 2019): “The band’s planned three-month stay at the ashram was cut short, however, following sexual misconduct allegations against the Maharishi. ‘We made a mistake there,’ Lennon later said, as quoted in The Beatles Anthology. ‘We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene. … We thought he was something other than he was.’”
- Burakov, Dmitry. 2018. Do discounts mitigate numerological superstitions? Evidence from the Russian real estate market. Judgment and Decision Making 13(5): 467–470.
- Carroll, Joseph. 2007. Thirteen percent of Americans bothered to stay on hotels’ 13th floor. Gallup.com (March 5). Available online at https://news.gallup.com/poll/26887/thirteen-percent-americans-bothered-stay-hotels-13th-floor.aspx.
- Chiu, David. 2019. The Beatles in India: 16 things you didn’t know. Rolling Stone (September 22). Available online at https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-beatles-in-india-16-things-you-didnt-know-203601/.
- Clauss, Kyle Scott. 2016. The Millennium Tower has no 44th floor. Boston Magazine (February 8). Available online at https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2016/02/08/millennium-tower-boston-44-floor/.
- Fortune Creating Buildings. N.d. Principles of Maharishi vastu architecture. Maharishivastu.org. Available online at https://www.maharishivastu.org/principles-of-maharishi-vastu-architecture.
- Li, Shirley. 2015. Skipping the 13th floor. The Atlantic (July 13). Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/skipping-the-13th-floor/385448/.
- Maheshwari, Anil K., and Margaret Rose P. Werd. 2019. Architecture and creativity: Examining the impact of Maharishi vastu on workplace creativity. Creativity Research Journal 31(4): 371–376. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2019.1667943.
- McCambridge, Jim, John Witton, and Diana R. Elbourne. 2014. Systematic review of the Hawthorne Effect: New concepts are needed to study research participation effects. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 67 (3): 267–77. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.08.015.
- Orne, Martin T. 2009. Demand characteristics and the concept of quasi-controls. In Robert Rosenthal and Ralph L. Rosnow (Eds.), Artifacts in Behavioral Research: Robert Rosenthal and Ralph L. Rosnow’s Classic Books New York: Oxford University Press, 110-137.
- Tanaka, Sanette. 2013. A 13th-floor condo? No such luck. The Wall Street Journal (September 5). Available online at https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-13thfloor-condo-no-such-luck-1378417974.