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The Next Thing To Fall Apart — A closer look at Murphy’s law

Edited by: Kavya Mittal

Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It’s a series of dominoes, falling one after the other, headed towards a cliff with sharp rocks at the bottom. And hungry lions. It’s when your day starts out bad, hits you with a hundred tiny problems, and finishes off with catastrophe. It’s when random inanimate objects seem determined to ruin your day, even when they have no business being sentient. And as frustration smolders inside, all we can do is shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s Murphy’s Law. Nothing we can do.” But what exactly is Murphy’s law? Is it truly unconquerable? And who was this Murphy guy anyway?

In college, when you are scrambling to get a dozen things done at once and tasks pile up against one another, all it takes is a tiny push before everything starts to go wrong. Murphy’s law seems unfairly stacked against us, so it leads one to wonder what really lurks behind that casual adage. Turns out, it’s a tangled mess of truth, cautions, and cognitive biases. So, if you’ve come looking for random trivia and tidbits of psychology, you are in the right place!

The law was named for American aerospace engineer, Edward Murphy, and was coined when every small instrument and device of his machine failed to function properly. But it was not intended as the fatalistic absolute we think it is — on the contrary, it was intended as a sensible warning against Murphy’s arrogance. 

Since anything in a machine can go wrong, always make sure you have considered every part of it and prepared for every eventuality. It cautioned scientists to make things as simple as possible — with too many separate elements, each with its own flaws, the chances of problems increase. It also warned against planning fallacy — when we plan according to the best possible scenario, rather than the worst. This is the bane of every student, when it comes to assignment deadlines and study plans.

But here’s where we run into the psychological aspect — where our own mood and outlook can set Murphy’s Law against us (yes, once again, we are our own worst enemy). Sometimes, it only feels like everything is going wrong, when in reality, our minds are magnifying the effect of negative events, and minimizing or ignoring the positive ones. This is called negative bias, and research suggests that this is an evolutionary trait. Often, the consequences of not noticing negative events can be much worse than not noticing positive events, so our brains are trained to remember and pay more attention to the negatives in life. This distorts our view, and we miss out on the parts of our efforts that succeeded.

There’s also an element of confirmation bias at play — after a few things are messed up, we are expecting another disaster. We start to look for evidence that everything is going wrong and end up ignoring evidence of things going right, as we try to prove our pessimistic view. Even our stress levels can exacerbate the problem. Once we make one mistake, we tend to panic and get stressed, making even more mistakes and creating the illusion that everything is set against us. With enough time, long-term stress can make people more pessimistic. Slowly but surely, we end up feeding Murphy’s Monster.

Despite our minds’ grand illusions, we cannot deny the grain of truth in this Law. Sometimes, things just go wrong. We can’t account for everything, and we can’t expect the unexpected. Bad things happen, and sometimes, they all happen at once. It is important to acknowledge it when it happens, and not minimize it or brush it away. But at the same time, it’s important to maintain perspective.

It is clear that Murphy’s Law is a concern to everyone who is trying to achieve anything at all. So, what can we do to combat this sinister saying? Firstly, simple awareness of our negative biases can help a lot. Once we know that we tend to magnify the negative, we can pay careful attention and deliberately acknowledge the positive events, the things that went right. Secondly, we can be careful of how our moods and stress seem to be impacting events. When too many things seem to be going wrong, take a step back, relax and assess the situation. Take a deep breath and try to see if things are truly immutably terrible. Often, the situation really isn’t that bad after all. Try to be aware of when your stress is making things look worse than they are.

The third (secret) way to defeat Murphy’s Law is to use it against itself. A common mistake is to plan things as though everything will go perfectly, so when things go wrong, the entire plan falls to pieces. Instead, plan for things to go wrong — if you allow the time for some mistakes, there is a lesser chance that one thing going wrong will topple the whole plan. Take the caution it offers, and keep things simple, reducing the ways in which your tasks can go wrong. 

Once we know that Murphy’s Law applies to a situation in advance, we can do our best to minimize its impact (and it always applies. Always.) And even if things do go wrong, make sure you learn how, and do better next time — negative bias will ensure that you remember it well, and never make the same mistake again. Finally, try to look at what new opportunities open up. “Anything can go wrong” can have the greater identity of “Anything can happen,” if only we pay close enough attention. Explore those new and unexpected paths that chance provides. Who knows what you’ll find?

Well, whatever it is, it’s probably about to go spectacularly wrong…

Hello! I am a first-year student at Ashoka University, planning to major in Physics and minor in Psychology. I enjoy music, writing and (occasionally) crochet. Huge fan of sci-fi and Doctor who.
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