The Eponymous Principles of Management : The Murphy’s Law and Its Variants – Murphy’s Law – An Overview

We keep hearing, ‘why this thing has to always happen with me?’. Or every time you go to refill your favorite dish from buffet spread, you will find that the source vessel itself requires a refill. Or when you are in hurry to reach somewhere, you will face all signals just turn ‘red’ as you approach traffic junction. The most striking phenomenon is the third wave of Covid-19, which everyone expected it will, and indeed is now rampant globally.

In the management parlance such inevitable (looking or real) events are known to be governed by what is very widely known epigram Murphy’s Law, which states that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

K.anh.eya.191, CC BY-SA 4.0
<; via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens with most of the epigrams, the real source of origin always remains hidden behind several anecdotal stories. One such, widely accepted, story of origin of Murphy’s Law is -:

‘Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”) was born at (American) Edwards Air Force Base in 1949 at North Base.

‘It was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, (a project) designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash.

One day, after finding that a transducer was wired wrong, he cursed the technician responsible and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

The contractor’s project manager kept a list of “laws” and added this one, which he called Murphy’s Law.

‘Actually, what he did was take an old law that had been around for years in a more basic form and give it a name.

‘Shortly afterwards, the Air Force doctor (Dr. John Paul Stapp[1]) who rode a sled on the deceleration track to a stop, pulling 40 Gs, gave a press conference. He said that their good safety record on the project was due to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law and in the necessity to try and circumvent it.

‘Aerospace manufacturers picked it up and used it widely in their ads during the next few months, and soon it was being quoted in many news and magazine articles. THE Murphy’s Law was born.[2]

It is also noted that the correct, original Murphy’s Law reads: “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.” The law seems to have so universal appeal that before too many years had gone by, all kinds of variants had passed into the popular imagination, changing or adding a phrase here a phrase there. as they went. Most of these are variants on “Anything that can go wrong, will” which is a shortened version of Finagle’s Law[3].

And here is another interesting twist to the tale: “It’s supposed to be, ‘If it can happen, it will,’” a former Edwards engineer told Spark. “Not ‘Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.’” In a radio interview in the early 1980s[4], Murphy insisted he had in fact meant it in the former, more motivating sense.[5]

The memetic drift apparent in these mutants clearly demonstrates Murphy’s Law acting on itself! Author Arthur Bloch has compiled several books full of corollaries to Murphy’s law and variations thereof. The first of these was Murphy’s law and other reasons why things go wrong!

The academic and scientific community have had their say on the law –

According to Richard Dawkins, so-called laws like Murphy’s law and Sod’s law are nonsense because they require inanimate objects to have desires of their own, or else to react according to one’s own desires. Dawkins points out that a certain class of events may occur all the time but are only noticed when they become a nuisance. He gives as an example aircraft noise interfering with filming. Aircraft are in the sky all the time but are only taken note of when they cause a problem. This is a form of confirmation bias whereby the investigator seeks out evidence to confirm his already formed ideas, but does not look for evidence that contradicts them

Similarly, David Hand, emeritus professor of mathematics and senior research investigator at Imperial College London, points out that the law of truly large numbers should lead one to expect the kind of events predicted by Murphy’s law to occur occasionally. Selection bias will ensure that those ones are remembered, and the many times Murphy’s law was not true are forgotten.

There have been persistent references to Murphy’s law associating it with the laws of thermodynamics from early on. In particular, Murphy’s law is often cited as a form of the second law of thermodynamics (the law of entropy) because both are predicting a tendency to a more disorganised state. Atanu Chatterjee investigated this idea by formally stating Murphy’s law in mathematical terms. Chatterjee found that Murphy’s law so stated could be disproved using the principle of least action.[6]

An amateur mathematician from the UK, Phillip Obayda, has another explanation. He drew up an equation combining the factors that influence the performance of a task – urgency, complexity, and importance, as well as skill (or lack thereof). He calculated the likelihood of a few familiar scenarios. He observed that to change the odds, all you have to do is alter one element of the equation. For instance, try to avoid doing anything complex or important when you’re in a rush, particularly if it requires skills you don’t have. But in general, the math proves that the universe really does hate you.[7]

So, whether Murphy’s Law is just a epigram, or some unfathomable probable event or a mathematically possible situation, it seems quite certain that by trying to understand all such possibilities and taking all known possible actions to prevent does have real value. The safety that present day aircraft cockpit has so reliably been proven is a direct credit to the strong belief in Murphy’s Law.

As such, we would also try to see what other variations to this Lawa re, why they came in to being and what are their significance in the next few episodes.


[1] Dr. John Stapp was an inveterate collector of aphorisms and adages, kept a logbook of such, and the practice spread to his entire working group. He published a collection of these in 1992 – a witty and humorous book – For Your Moments of Inertia: From Levity to Gravity: A Treatise Celebrating your Right to Laugh. He is also credited with an eponymous law Stapp’s Ironic Paradox.

[2] Murphy’s law’s origin

[3] Finagle’s law of dynamic negatives – “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.”

[4] Comedian Robin Ince explores Laws that are not laws- Murphy’s Law

[5] Murphy’s Law is totally misunderstood and is in fact a call to excellence

[6] Murphy’s Law

[7] The Mathematics of Murphy’s Law