How Murphy's Law Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, a staff writer here at HowStuffWorks.com. And with me, as always, is my trusty editrix, Candace Gibson. How's it going, Candace?

Candace Gibson: It's going okay, Josh. It's going okay.

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah? You a little down in the mouth!

Candace Gibson: I am, yeah. I just - everything today, it's not going the way I planned.

Josh Clark: Well, you know, I know exactly what you're talking about. You kind of have the feeling that the entire universe is against you?

Candace Gibson: I do.

Josh Clark: Being kicked around a little bit by the powers that be?

Candace Gibson: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Yeah. What you're talking about is Murphy's Law. You know about this?

Candace Gibson: I do, I do. Murphy's Law, it says that anything that can go wrong will.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Do you know where it came from?

Candace Gibson: I do actually. It all originated back in 1949, so this isn't ancient history. This is pretty recent. And essentially, the air force was doing a couple of tests in G-forces and trying to figure out how much a human being could handle. And what it all boiled down to was some people who worked for a Captain Edward A. Murphy weren't really doing their jobs exactly right. They were messing up the little things, and he said, pretty exasperated, "There are two ways to do something. They're always gonna pick the one that results in catastrophe."

Josh Clark: Yeah, but that's kind of a mouthful, isn't it?

Candace Gibson: It really is. And so Colonel John Paul Stapp later on -

Josh Clark: Great guy, great guy.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. He was sort of being the mouthpiece for these experiments that they were doing. And he essentially said that, you know, "Well, the experiments aren't going exactly as planned. It's all, you know, following Murphy's Law." "Well, what's that?" And he explained that anything that can go wrong will. So he sort of silver-tongued it.

Josh Clark: Well, you know, there's a lot of confusion. A lot of people slap Murphy's Law into just about anything that goes wrong, right?

Candace Gibson: Indeed.

Josh Clark: But there's actually a lot of corollary laws that have come about. Some of them are even older than Murphy's Law, which, by the way, Murphy's Law is a take-off on Sod's Law. Have you heard of that?

Candace Gibson: No, I haven't.

Josh Clark: It's an old English saying that any bad thing that can happen to some poor sod will. So it's pretty much the English version. And in England, they still call it Sod's Law. But there's plenty of corollary laws to Murphy's Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Like, take Etorre's observation. You ever been in traffic?

Candace Gibson: The other lane always moves faster.

Josh Clark: Exactly. And that's Etorre's observation. But actually, that's kind of based on a little bit of psychology, you know that?

Candace Gibson: No.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's true. You ready?

Candace Gibson: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, say you're sitting in traffic, and either side of you, both lanes are moving, and you're standing stock still. Of course you're gonna notice. You're in traffic. You want to get home. But your lane starts moving again, and you're paying attention to the car in front of you and behind you. You're no longer paying attention to the lanes on either side. So they're most likely stopped or at least going slower than you are. You never noticed. The only time we notice something is when it's not going our way.

Candace Gibson: So are you saying that we wanna feel victimized by the universe?

Josh Clark: I don't know that we wanna feel victimized so much, but I think we have a sense of fatalism, you know, that we're all kind of powerless at the hands of fate.

Candace Gibson: We're not actively making our own choices?

Josh Clark: It depends. You know, I think that there's a whole mindset surrounding Murphy's Law that people adopt that, you know, everything goes wrong, and that's when they pay the most attention. I used an example in the article. Like, say you're walking along, and you make it to the place you're trying to get to, and you have no problems. You don't stop and think, "Wow," you know, "I really am a good walker." But if, on the way, you stop or you fall and skin your knee, you're gonna sit there and say, "Why does it happen to me?" That's the thing you pay attention to. We humans are almost programmed to pay attention to all the terrible things that can happen to us and ignore all the great things.

Candace Gibson: Ah, so it's sort of a "Why me?" attitude.

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Candace Gibson: But if you were a little bit more careful or maybe even a little bit more optimistic, you could avoid Murphy's Law.

Josh Clark: I don't know that that's entirely true. I think that the key is optimism, and I know you're not much on fate, right?

Candace Gibson: Not so much.

Josh Clark: Well, I kind of tend to believe in Murphy's Law just because I'm clinically paranoid. But, you know, there's a certain amount of science of Murphy's Law. Did you know that?

Candace Gibson: I did. We're talking about Pel's equation, right?

Josh Clark: Yes, Pel's equation of Murphy - well, no, it's Joel Pel's Murphy's equation. And Joel Pel's this guy out of the University of British Columbia, and he basically quantified Murphy's Law. He took all these factors that surround an event, like how badly you want it to happen in a certain way or the complexity of the system involved or the urgency of it going a certain way, and he plugged them into an equation, and he used his '89 Tercel as an example. You know about that?

Candace Gibson: That's a Toyota.

Josh Clark: Yes, it is a Toyota, an '89 one at that. But Pel calculated the probability of his 1989 Toyota Tercel's clutch going out in a rainstorm when he was 16 miles from home. And he came up with a factor of 1, which means it would definitely happen.

Candace Gibson: Well, you know, Josh, that could actually be attributed to the fact that Toyota no longer makes the Tercel, so who knows how sturdy an automobile it was in the first place.

Josh Clark: That is a good argument, or it could be that Murphy's Law is real, and we should all fear it. If you do fear Murphy's Law and wanna know your enemy, go read, "How Murphy's Law Works" on HowStuffWorks.com.

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