The Physics and Psychology of Murphy's law: Where Murphy's law came from and why it happens so often.


January 8th is not a day I'll soon forget. It started simply enough with my trying to shave. The razor was discharged. Then I wanted to watch a DVD with breakfast but I pushed the DVD player's "open" button only to have the machine slide the tray halfway out before reversing to close. Then I got a "please wait" message while the machine chewed through it's software trying to decide what I wanted it to do. Eventually, after three more attempts, it finally opened. Next I went to turn on the computer and discovered that the last automatic update forced on me by Windows had scrambled something and I could no longer get on-line. Because I couldn't get on-line I couldn't fix the problem. Needless to say I was getting concerned about what else the day had in store for me. I should have gone back to bed.

Since the computer was down for the Internet and I was already sitting at the computer I decided to work off-line on my website. The software I've been using for over ten years suddenly started working differently than it ever had before. I got around the change but it was an inconvenience. After getting through that ordeal I ventured out into the world, wary of what might be waiting for me. I didn't have to wait long.

I needed to drive across town for a part for a water heater. I got in the car only to discover the gas tank needle was locked on "empty." I got it filled up and then discovered I was out of money. That led me to the ATM, which of course was out of funds. I found another one and finally made it to the hardware store. You guessed it... it was out of the part I needed.

And so the day went, with a new frustration thrown at me at every turn. Finally, in exasperation I yelled, "Why am I being hounded by Murphy's law?"

I decided the best course of action was to go home, lock the door, sit down, and do absolutely nothing so that nothing else could go wrong. Sitting there, fuming, I began wondering about Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong it will. In particular, who was Murphy and why was he out to get me?

Using my wife's IPad, which was thankfully still working, I applied myself to that font of all human wisdom: the Internet. Here's what I discovered about Murphy and his law:


In popular use for over half a century, controversy abounds as to the origins of Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong it will. The philosophy behind the phrase, if not this exact wording, has been around since before written history. These earlier forms are usually referred to as Sod's Law or Finagle's Corollary. ("Sod" refers to any poor "sod.")

Most experts attribute the modern Murphy's Law to USAF Captain Edward Murphy, a research engineer at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Upon learning that a rocket sled test failed because a technician wired the sensors wrong, Murphy is reported to have exclaimed, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll do it." For some reason the phrase caught on and began evolving. The press got a hold of it when during a press conference the man who eventually rode the sled commented that the reason he survived is that everyone on the project paid close attention to "Murphy's Law." When asked to explain, he used the form we're familiar with today.

So that explained where the phrase came from. What no site could explain was why it happens so often. As I reflected I discovered that I had all the information I needed to explain all about why Murphy's Law seems to be running amuck these days.

Cogitating the facts, I realized that the prevalence of Murphy thrusting his law in my face so often was a recent development. Being older, I had the perspective of looking back over my long life and discovering that twenty years ago I wasn't as often annoyed by Murphy as today and even less twenty years before that. Why not? The reasons turned out to be the fact that the worlds is constantly getting more complicated and human nature predisposes us to look for occurrences of Murphy's law.

The Physics of Murphy's law:

It's universally understood that the more complicated a machine or system is the more likely it is to break down. Now think of the modern world. It's packed with unbelievably complex machines and systems. Take a look at your video system. Odds are you have a TV, surround sound system, DVR, DVD player and probably a blu-ray player. Each of these boxes are extremely complex and controlled not by you but by thousands of lines of computer programming. While they are designed to be as reliable as possible every once in a while something goes slightly wrong and they don't operated as expected. Now apply this to the hundreds of devices that not only surround us but upon which we are dependent and you begin to get a feel for just how complicated, and therefore unstable, the entire system is.

Take the Windows operating system. Broken down into it's basic level it represents millions of lines of code that have evolved over the last two decades... and it's getting more complicated every day. I bought a new computer and the first time I turned it on I got informed that 159 updates needs to be added since it was released. With so many changes to such a complex system bugs are bound to slip through testing. This means there are little Murphy's Law time bombs in every computer waiting for the right set of cues to be activated and break down.

Windows is only one example. Everything in the world is controlled or supported by computers or similar systems created a net of such unprecedented complexity that breakdowns are getting more and more common. Am I bad mouthing computers? Not at all. They allow me to do things I never dreamed possible in my youth. But, the complexity they represent means that there are many more ways in which something can go wrong today than twenty years ago.

Hand in hand with the complexity of the individual tools that surround us is the fact that we are surrounded by many more devices than in the past. Go back to the TV system. Forty years ago it was just one box with a mechanical on/off switch and a single dial with a dozen stations. It was very limiting but also very simple and reliable. Today's multi-box TV system in comparison isn't just a single box but half a dozen, each much more complex than TV sets of old.

Cars are more complicated. Washing machines are more complicated. Radios are more complicated. Everything is more complicated. All this adds up to a world that less stable or reliable than it was decades ago, with the result that things go wrong more often.

And it's not all the fault of the number or complexity of the objects around us. We ourselves are inviting Murphy to have his way with us as never before. People are more active now. We have more devices around us allowing us to do more different types of actions than every in history. Two hundred years ago a man would ride a horse to work. Today we drive a car while drinking coffee while listening to the radio and talking on the cell phone. The more things we do the more likely something's going to go wrong.

Truly, Murphy's Law isn't out to get us. Rather, the complexity of the world and the increased number of things we do in a day are actually inviting it to visit us more often than ever before.

The Psychology of Murphy's law:

My son, the shrink, once explained that humans have a natural tendency to focus on bad things that happen to them. This isn't a reflection of cynicism but genetic programming designed to help us survive in the primitive conditions under which we evolved. Bad things that happened, or were about to happen, to us were more likely to kill primitive man than good things. People who focused more on bad things that those who didn't tended to live longer, have more children, and in so doing pass this survival trait to the next generation.

In today's modern world we no longer have to worry about saber toothed cats jumping out at us but the tendency to worry about the negatives in everyday live is still active. Because of this when something small goes wrong we dwell on it and remember it longer than when something good happens. This skews our perception of the events affecting everyday so that it feels like more negative things happen than good. In the context of Murphy's Law, this means we're more aware of the number of times it's evoked than the number of times we dodge a bullet.

The Cascade Effect:

Have you ever noticed how often Murphy's Law strikes in waves? Something goes wrong, then quick on its heels you're slammed with an entire string of unfortunate events. I believe this cascade effect is largely psychological. If something bad happens, we get upset. Angered, or frustrated, we're more likely to hurry, lash out, make weaker decisions. In this stressed mental state we make mistakes that may appear to be heaped on us by cruel fate but are really self inflicted.

An Inescapable Conclusion:

The world is getting more complicated and therefore unstable every day. This means that as time goes by we have to expect that Murphy and his law are going to visit us with ever increasing regularity. It's the inescapable price we pay for the modern conveniences and capabilities we enjoy.


But That Doesn't Mean We Can't Fight Back!:

If you want to reduce Murphy interfering with your life, consider the following suggestions:

1. Simplify: Anything you can do the reduce to complexity of your life will help.

2. Do One Thing at a Time: Many times Murphy gets us because we're in such a hurry we try to do two things, or more, at the same time. The inevitable distraction one activity creates for the other invites Murphy to get us.

3. Plan Ahead: The fast pace of daily life seems to force us to do things "on the fly." Without a plan it's easy to make a mistake that we blame Murphy for, when it's really lack of preparation.

4. Use the Proper Tool: This is a favorite proverb from time immemorial, and for good reason. Many times something goes wrong because in our hurry to get it done as quickly as possible we grab to closest tool at hand, not the one we need.

5. Visualize: This is similar to planning ahead. It could also be titled: "Think about what you want to accomplish." Imagine what you're trying to do in your mind before starting. Visualize what needs to happen. Do the pieces fit together?

6. Put Things Away Where They Belong: Many times the wrong tool is used because we can't find the right one. Disaster often follows. Even if it doesn't, the frustration of having to waste time hunting for the right tool can cause us to get mad, stop thinking and make a mistake.

7. Organize: Before we can put something away so we know where it is next time we need it, we have to have wherever we work organized enough so there is a defined place for everything to do.

Will these stop Murphy's Law from getting us? No. But they will reduce the number of times we invite him to our door. Give them a try and I'm sure they'll pay off. Good Luck!



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