Sod's law

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Sod's law, a British culture axiom, states that "if something can go wrong, it will". The law sometimes has a corollary: that the misfortune will happen at "the worst possible time" (Finagle's law). The term is commonly used in the United Kingdom, though in North America, the phrase "Murphy's law" is more popular.[1]

The phrase seems to derive, at least in part, from the colloquialism an "unlucky sod"; a term for someone who has had some bad (unlucky) experience, and is usually used as a sympathetic reference to the person.[2]

A slightly different form of Sod's law states that "the degree of failure is in direct proportion to the effort expended and to the need for success."[3]

An alternative expression, again in British culture, is "hope for the best, expect the worst".[4]

Comparison with Murphy's law[edit]

Sod's law is similar to, but broader than, Murphy's law ("Whatever can go wrong will go wrong"). For example, concepts such as "bad fortune will be tailored to the individual" and "good fortune will occur in spite of the individual's actions" are sometimes given as examples of Sod's law in action. This would broaden Sod's law to a general sense of being "mocked by fate". In these aspects, it is similar to some definitions of irony, particularly the irony of fate. Murphy's technological origin as used by John Stapp during his Project MX981 is more upbeat—it was a reminder to the engineers and team members to be cautious and make sure everything was accounted for, to let no stone be left unturned—not an acceptance of an uncaring uninfluenceable fate. Although according to the account of George Nichols, Murphy's own use of the phrase -- "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will" -- was more similar to the British use.

According to David J. Hand, emeritus professor of mathematics and senior research investigator at Imperial College London, Sod's law is a more extreme version of Murphy's law. While Murphy's law says that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (eventually), Sod's law requires that it always goes wrong with the worst possible outcome. Hand suggests that belief in Sod's law is a combination of the law of truly large numbers and the psychological effect of the law of selection. The former says we should expect things to go wrong now and then, and the latter says the exceptional events where something went wrong stand out in memory, but the great number of mundane events where nothing exceptional happened fall into obscurity.[5]


David Hand gives the example of traffic lights turning red when a driver is in a hurry, or email software crashing at the exact moment the user attempts to send an important message.[5] Applied to individuals, he describes it as "Sod's law" that the composer Beethoven lost his hearing, and that drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car crash.[5] Hand sees the law as an example of selection bias and the law of truly large numbers.[6][5]

Richard Dawkins gives a simple example of a coin toss resulting in tails, the more strongly that one wishes the result to be heads. He uses this example to show that the idea of Sod's law is "nonsense", as the coin is unaware of the person's wish and has no desire to thwart it.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Murphy's laws origin". The Desert Wings. Murphy's laws site. March 3, 1978.
  2. ^ Compare what has become the even more common phrase: "lucky sod" - comparative graph of usage frequency.
  3. ^ Dickson, Paul (1978). The Official Rules. Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385287432.
  4. ^ Partridge, Eric (1992). Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Scarborough House. pp. 278. ISBN 9781461660408.
  5. ^ a b c d Hand, David J. (11 February 2014). The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 197–198. ISBN 978-0-374-17534-4.
  6. ^ a b Richard Dawkins (2012). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Simon and Schuster. p. 222. ISBN 978-1-4516-9013-2.

External links[edit]