Outwitting Murphy / Thoughts on Sod’s Law

Wikipedia defines Murphy’s Law (aka Sod’s Law) thus: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” In some formulations (Murphy 2), it is extended to – “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.” An example: a man arrives on time for a bus that invariably leaves late but finds that this one time it has left early and/ moreover it was vital that he caught it as it was going to take him to an interview for a job he badly needed… in an extreme case (Murphy 2) when he tells his partner that he is not going to get the job she leaves him etc.

He could only have defeated this by arriving very early and not assuming that the bus would always leave late. It is very difficult to outwit Murphy except by taking tiresome, almost infinite precautions or so I thought…

This example of outwitting Murphy’s law is based on our experience of selling books online. It is compelling but very site specific. Many of our books are kept at a warehouse 15 miles away from our sorting office. Quite often customers want pictures of a book before buying it. You can either bring the book from the warehouse to the office and take the photos there, then wait for the customer to order the book. If they do not buy the book (very likely– only 20% who want photos do) you have to take the book back to the warehouse. You can also  take the photos at the warehouse, leave the book there and pick it up when ordered. Both methods are about equal in terms of time and effort – as we go to the warehouse quite often. We discovered that if you photographed the book at the warehouse and left it there it was much more likely to be ordered. If you took the book to the office, eagerly expecting a sale, it was noticeably less likely to happen…The esoteric, wu-wu explanation is that Murphy had been outwitted and thought he was putting you to greater effort by making the book still at the warehouse sell and the book you had optimistically bought to the office fail to sell… Murphy’s law deniers (among them Richard Dawkins) would say ‘bollocks’…although they are usually talking about Murphy giving malign power to inanimate objects (their cussedness etc.,) which is, at the very least, fanciful..

I have noted a classic example of Sod’s Law at work when visiting London. You’re in a house in a side road and leave with the intention of getting a taxi on the main road at the end of the street, as you walk up the street you notice with some delight that on the main road (that you will soon reach) there are many taxis for hire going by. However when you actually get to the top there are none – and none for a log time, you also notice there are other competitive people now waiting and if Murphy 2 comes into play it starts to rain (quite heavily). This is from a pre UBER age but the principal holds. If you were heading to an auction and missed it you would often find that all the lots that you wanted had sold cheaply, possibly Murphy at work- but it could be explained by the fact that you were not there to bid the lots up!

The idea that there is a negative, possibly malign force working against us is probably false – whether you are an atheist or a believer. The believer would see a benign higher power, the atheist no power at all. The idea that we are cursed, that the ‘Devil rides out’ that always ‘the time is out of joint’ is unhelpful. Preventative steps can be taken.

What to do?—try confusing Murphy by not doing what he expects you to do, tread carefully, take preventative measures, be unpredictable; in the cases noted you might also start earlier, anticipate worst case type delays; you will almost arrive early, sometimes absurdly so (but then you are in the position of having nothing to do which is something to be savoured – or to quote Hamlet again ‘a ‘consummation devoutly to be wish’d’). Alternatively you could practice ‘radical acceptance’ or maybe cultivate a stoical ‘devil may care’ attitude where you don’t give a damn about being late. Such insouciance usually requires a healthy bank balance- but not always…

2 thoughts on “Outwitting Murphy / Thoughts on Sod’s Law

  1. Bandol

    Interesting. Taxis in Lonon- been there. In the case of the books it is possible that the books at a warehouse get ordered because there is more justified confidence in them selling and there for no need to move them. Just saying. Hard to prove.

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks Bandol. You may have a point but we often send up books that we are almost certain will sell (and often don’t- if you want pictures it means you are hesitant to buy) which would balance out the tendency to not send up books which we feel will always be desirable. Wanting photos of books is a sign of the hesitant buyer and only about 1 in 7 such inquiries end up in a sale. You know it ain’t easy..I still feel there is something going on that is not dreamed of in our philosophy (Hamlet again — perhaps the solution to foiling Murphy is somewhere in the play..)


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