Murphy’s Law In A Nutshell

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

DefinitionMurphy’s Law is a popular adage or epigram that states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” It suggests that if there is a possibility of something going awry or not as planned, it is likely to happen, often at the most inconvenient or unexpected moment. Murphy’s Law is often invoked humorously to express the idea that life is unpredictable, and unexpected setbacks or mishaps should be anticipated as a part of the human experience. It is not a scientific law but rather a statement of pessimism or caution.
Key ConceptsPessimistic Perspective: Murphy’s Law reflects a pessimistic viewpoint that emphasizes the potential for negative outcomes or errors.
Unpredictability: It highlights the unpredictable nature of events and the human tendency to experience setbacks or mishaps.
Preparedness: The adage encourages preparedness and the recognition that things may not always go as planned.
Humor: Murphy’s Law is often used in a humorous context to acknowledge life’s quirks and unexpected turns.
CharacteristicsWidespread Usage: Murphy’s Law is a widely recognized and commonly used concept in everyday conversation and humor.
Subjectivity: Its interpretation can vary from person to person, and some may use it more seriously, while others use it as a lighthearted expression.
Cultural Variation: Different cultures may have their own versions or interpretations of Murphy’s Law.
ImplicationsExpectation of Setbacks: Murphy’s Law reminds individuals and organizations to anticipate unexpected challenges and be prepared for contingencies.
Risk Management: It underscores the importance of risk management and contingency planning in various aspects of life, including business, engineering, and project management.
Adaptability: Recognizing the potential for things to go wrong encourages adaptability and problem-solving skills.
Humor and Coping: In humorous contexts, Murphy’s Law can serve as a coping mechanism to deal with frustrating or inconvenient situations.
AdvantagesMindful Preparation: It encourages individuals and organizations to prepare for unexpected events and consider backup plans.
Resilience: Embracing the idea that things may not always go smoothly can foster resilience and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
Humor: In humorous usage, it provides a lighthearted way to acknowledge life’s quirks and challenges.
DrawbacksPessimism: Murphy’s Law can foster a pessimistic outlook if taken too seriously, leading to unnecessary anxiety or a defeatist attitude.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Excessive belief in Murphy’s Law might lead individuals to inadvertently contribute to negative outcomes by expecting them.
Overreliance on Luck: Relying on the assumption that things will go wrong can discourage proactive problem-solving.
ApplicationsProject Management: Professionals in project management use Murphy’s Law to remind themselves and their teams to plan for contingencies and unforeseen issues.
Engineering and Design: Engineers consider potential failure points and conduct risk assessments to mitigate the impact of failures.
Aviation: The aviation industry embraces Murphy’s Law principles in safety protocols and aircraft design.
Space Exploration: NASA and other space agencies apply Murphy’s Law principles in mission planning and spacecraft design to ensure astronaut safety.
Military Strategy: Military planners incorporate Murphy’s Law principles into strategy and training to prepare for unexpected challenges on the battlefield.
Use CasesEmergency Services: Firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency responders anticipate the unexpected in their work, knowing that emergencies can happen at any time.
Disaster Preparedness: Disaster management agencies plan for various scenarios, including worst-case scenarios, to effectively respond to crises.
Product Development: Product designers and engineers consider potential flaws or defects in their designs and conduct rigorous testing to prevent issues from arising.
Event Planning: Event organizers prepare for contingencies such as bad weather, technical malfunctions, or last-minute changes.
Space Exploration: Space agencies like NASA meticulously plan for mission failures, astronaut safety, and unforeseen challenges in space missions.

Understanding Murphy’s Law

After hearing the remarks, the technician’s project manager called it Murphy’s Law.

Murphy’s Law describes those days in life where everything seems to go wrong. 

Perhaps the alarm clock failed to go off on the morning of an important presentation. Or maybe the best salesman in the organization goes home sick minutes before a crucial client meeting. Whatever the event, it is largely beyond the control of the individual or business.

Indeed, it is how a business responds to Murphy’s Law that will give it a competitive edge.

Managing the impact of Murphy’s Law

When things go wrong in a business, the cause can be tracked to six factors: human, process, policy, equipment, materials, or environment.

Once the cause has been identified, the business should evaluate its systems and develop best practices to minimize risk.

For example:

  • Does the business have routine checklists to ensure consistency?
  • Does the business have an appropriate equipment maintenance protocol?
  • How is the business turning customer complaints into opportunities for growth?
  • Is the business proficient in human resource management? Are employees suitably trained, skilled, or motivated?
  • Is important data backed up? Are important processes or innovations patented to guard against the competition?

Murphy’s Three Laws of Business Continuity

Murphy’s Law has been adapted to business with two additional laws. 

Let’s look at each:

  1. Murphy’s First Law – “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” In business, the first law highlights the importance of risk assessment and the value of spending money on risk mitigation.
  2. Murphy’s Second Law – “If it cannot possibly go wrong, it’ll still go wrong.” No matter how much time or money is spent on risk mitigation, it is impossible to eliminate all of them. Given enough time, something with a very small probability of occurring becomes increasingly likely. Business continuity plans should be developed to ensure that the recovery from a negative event is as swift as possible.
  3. Murphy’s Third Law – “Life happens.” Accepting that life is beyond their control is important for businesses. While continuity plans are vital, they do not make a business immune to negative events. Background levels of operational risk should always be communicated to management and key stakeholders.

Murphy’s law examples

Here are some examples of Murphy’s law in action which you may be able to relate to.

Computer malfunction

Almost everyone can remember a situation where a computer has decided to crash or reboot itself in the middle of an important presentation.

Inopportune calls

Have you ever waited all morning for an important call, only to give up waiting and have the client ring while you are in the middle of eating your lunch?

This is a classic and all too familiar example of Murphy’s law at work.

Caught in the act

You’ve spent all day working on an important project and by 4 pm you are suffering from intense social media withdrawal.

The minute you decide to stop work and check your phone, the boss walks into your office and catches you being unproductive.

Why couldn’t he walk in when you were hard at work?

Project management

In project management, there is a common adage which states that “The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.”

Office décor 

Office employees attempt to revitalize an unfrequented area of the office with some new indoor plants in terracotta pots.

Only a week after they are installed, contractors who need access to a storeroom in the area to carry out repairs knock the plants on the floor and smash the pots.

Supermarket queues

We’ve all been in a situation at the supermarket where we are standing in line watching the adjacent line move more quickly.

We debate the merits of joining the other queue before doing so impatiently. 

As soon as we join the new queue, someone ahead of us drops all their coins on the ground or has their credit card declined. The line we were originally standing in starts to move faster as a result.

Real estate

While a real estate agent is showing a house to an interested buyer, a once-in-a-century storm overwhelms the roof gutters and causes water to pool inside. 

Wedding videography

Consider a wedding videographer who is filming the bride and groom exchange vows right as a noisy aircraft flies overhead.

This is another example of Murphy’s law and its propensity to be associated with perfectly imperfect timing.

Intermittent vehicle malfunction

Car ownership can either be very enjoyable or endlessly irritating.

Have you ever tolerated a constant rattle or noise coming from somewhere in the engine, only to have the problem disappear once you take it to the mechanic?

Key takeaways

  • Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.
  • The impacts of Murphy’s Law cannot be controlled, but they can be managed. By understanding the six causes of unforeseen events, a business can develop risk-managing systems for each.
  • Murphy’s Law in business is sometimes seen with two additional laws. The second law states that things will still go wrong, no matter how hard a business tries to eliminate risk. The third law dictates that some level of risk should be factored into doing business. This should then be communicated to management and key stakeholders.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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