Is Murphy’s Law alive and well?

James_Edward_Murphy

In today’s post, I will be trying to look into Murphy’s Law.

There are multiple versions existing for this law, the most common version being – “whatever can go wrong will go wrong”. Some other variations are as follows;

  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  • Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Murphy’s Law makes a pessimist out of the most optimistic man. Is it true that the universe has a tendency for causing things to fail? Does Murphy make a rational man go “Why me?”, when something unexpected happens?

A common version of Murphy’s law is the case of buttered toast. The buttered toast always fall on the buttered side. Let’s look into this deeper.

Does buttered toast listen to Murphy?

The following section is taken from “The Australian Journal: A Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 23”, from 1888. The highlighted section shows that the idea of buttered toast/bread falling on its buttered side is common, even in the 1800’s.

AustralianJournal

Interestingly, studies have shown that buttered toasts fall on their buttered side almost 62% of the time. This would mean that it is not a fifty-fifty chance like flipping a coin. Why? This seemingly curious “bad luck” can be explained with science. Delving deep into the case of buttered toast, it becomes clear that the following factors always remain the same;

  • The toast always starts with the buttered side face-up
  • The height of the fall is similar (2-3 feet). This is because the toast is held at waist height generally, and in the case of falling from a table, the standard table height is between 2-3 feet.

These two factors increase the chances for the toast to fall on the buttered side. In fact, studies have shown that when toasts are thrown up in the air, the likelihood decreases to fifty-fifty. Alternately, when the toast is dropped from a height of 7-8 feet, the likelihood of buttered toast falling on the unbuttered side goes up back to about 62%. The reader can find more about this here and here.

Does Murphy still seem threatening?

Factors which cause Murphy to visit:

I have compiled a list that explains why Murphy is prevailing.

  • Nature of humans: Humans always remember when something bad happens to them. Do you remember the last time your car broke down and you had to call for it to be towed away? Do you remember the other 99.9% of time, where you did not have any problems with the car? Since your brain likes to avoid making mistakes, it likes to recall the bad times more so that you do not repeat the same mistakes. The downside of this is that it can make you start noticing only the bad events. Think of a large white paper with a small black dot. Our attention is on the black dot, and not at the remaining 99.9% of the white space.
  • Law of large numbers: The bad thing about events with relatively small probabilities is that they will still happen. No matter how small the probability, with enough chances the event will happen. The probability of winning the powerball lottery is 1 in 292,201,338. Even with such a small probability, people still win the lottery on a regular basis. The probability of somebody winning a lottery goes up when the prize gets really high (>$300 Million). This is because, a larger amount of tickets are sold during that time. As Law of large numbers dictates, with enough chances even the low probability event of winning a lottery happens.

Combining the Nature of Humans, and the Law of large numbers, you have the perfect storm that allows Murphy to rule the world. The egocentric view of humans tends to make events about them, when from a probability standpoint, it could have happened to anybody. There is a profound difference between asking “What are the chances of it happening” and “What are the chances of it happening to me?”

  • Law of Nature: It is the law of nature that everything degrades over time. Eventually, all products will fail. A good example is when you move into a new house, and after about 7 years, more than one appliance starts to breakdown. First it was the refrigerator, and now it is your washer as well. The fact that the two appliances were bought together might escape your mind, and you will blame Murphy.
  • Poor Processes: In relation to item 3 discussed above, if you have poor processes, the chance of multiple things to fail goes up. A good example is poor preventive maintenance procedures. Multiple equipments can break down at the same time, if they are not maintained properly. If one equipment can go bad, there is a good likelihood for another to go bad at the same time, if the same poor preventive maintenance program was being used. A poorly designed system can become a playground for Murphy.
  • Special Causes: Sometimes the unlikely event(s) happens due to special causes. Sometimes this special cause can be an enabling condition that allows multiple things to breakdown. The special cause at times is people. People are inherently inconsistent, and they can add inadvertent variation to the process that makes thing go wrong.
  • Complexity and Chaos: Murphy’s law is very much relevant in the presence of complexity and chaos. In the presence of disorder and uncertainty, the reliability of a system can breakdown easily. Any order from constraints is disrupted and this allows more things to go wrong. I welcome the reader to visit Cognitive Edge website to learn more about this.

Final Words and the story of Arthur Ashe:

As detailed in the buttered toast section, it is imperative that one tries to understand why something went wrong. What are the factors affecting the process? What are the chances of the event to happen? Is there indeed a pattern or is the pattern created by the perception? The buttered toast is a rigged game where there is high likelihood of the toast to fall on its buttered side when dropped from a height of 2-4 feet.

WHY ME?

Arthur Ashe, the legendary Wimbledon player was dying of AIDS which he got due to infected blood he received during a heart surgery in 1983.

From the world over, he received letters from his fan, one of them conveyed: “Why does God have to select you for such a bad disease?”

To this Arthur Ashe replied: The world over–50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5,000,000 learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach Wimbledon, 4 to semi finals, 2 to finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked god “Why me?”

And today in pain, I should not be asking GOD “why me?”

Always keep on learning…

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