In A Nutshell
If anything can go wrong, it will. This pessimistic phrase has been around for a long time, but it was only called Murphy’s law when US Air Force colonel John Stapp applied the label after a technician working on his experiments with G forces showed up with some key components that were completely defective. Until Stapp applied the unlucky man’s name to the rule, it was earlier known as Sod’s Law. And researchers have found out that it’s a real thing—so next time it feels like the world is out to get you, it really might be.
The Whole Bushel
If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. We’ve all had days like that, where it seems the only thing to do is go back to bed and start again the next day (which might actually work, but more on that in a minute).
What we now know as Murphy’s Law has been around probably as long as bad luck has been. It only started to be called that when a hapless Captain Edward A. Murphy was working on some experiments with US Air Force pilot John Stapp. Stapp was trying to determine how G forces impacted the human body, and Murphy designed the gauges that would be used to measure the impact that Stapp’s body endured. When it came time to install the gauges, they weren’t working. Hours later, it was discovered that the gauges he’d brought had been manufactured incorrectly from the beginning. Stapp still blamed him, as it meant he hadn’t been bothered to make sure they were functional before bringing them out. After they got them fixed, they went on to be used throughout the tests; Murphy, however, placed the blame on his assistant, and after he fixed the problem, he left the testing grounds never to return.
There are a couple slightly different versions of the same story, but that one was recounted by George Nichols, who worked on the G force project with Stapp. (During that time, Stapp also coined another law, called Stapp’s Ironical Paradox. It stated, “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”)
Before the term “Murphy’s Law” was coined, the same rule was more commonly known as Sod’s Law—in some places, it’s still called that. And far from being a myth, British researchers have worked out the mathematics behind it that make it a very real thing.
It all has to do with aggravation.
The additional part of Murphy’s Law is that not only will things go wrong if they can, but that they’ll go wrong at the worst possible moment.
Scientists commissioned by British Gas took that idea and several other values into consideration, those that they knew would have the most impact on external events. That includes urgency, importance of the task at hand, complexity of the task, your skill at it, and how often you’ve done it before.
With the help of 1,000 participants, researchers were able to compile data into a graph form that showed that the more important a task is, the more likely Murphy’s Law is to hit. That’s usually because you’re more anxious about getting it right, and when there’s even one little hiccup, that anxiety rises. In turn, that makes you more likely to make other little mistakes, sometimes without realizing it, that will lead to even more mistakes and a more disastrous outcome. The more aggravated you are, the study said, the more statistically likely you are to screw up.
Another study done by Cardiff University supports the theory. In this study, factors that went into determining how likely things were to go horribly, horribly wrong included the extent of planning that was put into the task, the threat of the consequences of it not working, as well as a person’s optimism that everything will be fine, and the levels of background stress. Like the British Gas study, this one found that the more important the task, the more background stress and the less optimism went along with it—so it was more likely to go bad.
So, go home and go back to bed. Science says so.
Show Me The Proof
A History of Murphy’s Law, by Nick T. Spark
BBC News: Now it’s Sod’s Law—the formula
Null Hypothesis: Sod’s Law—A Proof