Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias, Decision Making > The Sixth (not so good) Sense: Always Expecting the Best, Always Getting the Worst

The Sixth (not so good) Sense: Always Expecting the Best, Always Getting the Worst

Have you ever found yourself hoping for a positive outcome but instead, you end up experiencing the worst possible outcome? For example, you have endlessly searched and finally found the perfect shampoo to combat your excessive dandruff when all of a sudden, the company decides to discontinue the product. Or when you finally have the confidence to exchange phone numbers with your all-time crush and you call but not only did they give you a wrong number, it is a rejection hotline number. Even those times when you finally make a doctor’s appointment for that 3 week long pain you have endured and when you arrive, you feel as brand new as you have ever felt before. Reflecting on these instances make us wonder why expecting a certain outcome can result in, not only the opposite outcome, but also the worst one. Furthermore, the real question is why? Why does it feel as if the worst always happens? It almost feels as if we wished upon the bad.

These reoccurring, yet unwanted, events are simply following Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law underscores our problem sensing and expectancy deficiencies as humans, suggesting, “if anything can go wrong, it will”. It is grounded on how our patterns of thinking influence our predictions of strategies and behaviors (Amason, 1996). While this phenomenon could be deemed as an over-generalizing law of probability, the beauty of it stems from the broad, endless possibilities that could manifest themselves in a myriad of ways across individuals. In the same way, its’ broad nature has sparked interest in a variety of fields such as, psychology, physics, and statistics. Now let’s explore fundamental components that help explain why the worst occurs when we least need it and devise a strategic plan to reduce the inevitable as much as possible.

Murphy’s Law relies on making sure that from the wide range of negative outcomes that can occur, the worst one will occur. Often times we are blinded by our hopeful expectations and ignore the statistically supported probability of the opposite happening. It is important to make note of the statistical research because of Murphy’s Law counter-intuitive nature. In a study done by Behn (1980), college students were asked to choose between flipping a biased and unbiased coin for money. Most people chose flipping the unbiased coin in exchange for the 50 dollars if it landed on heads. Although, the other choice that involved flipping a tales-side biased coin seven times with a 0.1 chance of coming up heads, would have been correct. The results supported the faulty in the strong, intuitive approach we often take in predicting. Congruent with the framing bias- which is the influence the way a problem is presented has on our judgment (Kahneman & Tversky, 1985)- this study allows us to think of how important the way we mentally construct a situation is in relying on our intuition. Our humanistic tendency to focus on the good things skews our perception of acknowledging and considering the copious amounts of negative things that can happen. For example, you are standing in front of the person of your dreams as they jot down their phone number. All you feel are fluttering butterflies in your abdomen region and occasion skips in your heartbeat. You cannot believe the day has come. Is it euphoria? Is it love? Neither, it’s a joke.

This phenomenon highlights our weakness in considering, acknowledging, and preparing for the worst outcome. Let’s consider the aforementioned scenario of being rejected by your dream lover. All night, you were fixated on the beauty of their fashionable outfit and pearly white smile but failed to realize their excessive intake of alcohol and flirtatious mannerisms with everyone, including the bartender. Although you have been rejected plenty of times before, none of what you see raises a red flag. Thus, you fearlessly approach and volunteer as her comedic relief for the night. The Problem Sensing model suggests how a potential problem could go unnoticed (Porter & Smith, 2005). The model is composed of three cognitive processes: noticing, interpreting, and incorporating stimuli. Upon the arrival of a bad feeling or problem, noticing it and interpreting it happens in a parallel- or simultaneous- manner. Our preexisting mental representations of the situation could stain our judgment of what could happen. Similarly, our selective attention ultimately shifts towards what is seemingly relevant and correct. Since attention is finite, we cannot process everything we perceive and thus, what does not get our attention at the moment is very likely to be the source of the “unexpected”, negative outcomes. Researchers have proposed the signal-to-noise concept which essentially posits that regardless of blatantly evident and relevant information foreshadowing a problem, we will pay more attention to information that has a stronger signal- or in this case- probability of happening ( for more information on the figure, click here) (Kiesler & Sproull, 1982). Likewise, misinterpreting a non-problem as a problem could result in the worst happening. Essentially, Murphy’s Law has no mercy to extensive expertise of noticing and perceiving stimuli that has previously resulted in a positive or negative outcome.

As the world becomes increasingly more intricate and complicated, the possibility of negative outcomes dramatically rises. As many precautionary measures you take to be alert and avoid the bad, remember that attention is finite and probability takes the side with the most players—in this case, the negatives.



Amason, A. C. (1996). Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision-making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams. Academy of management journal39(1), 123-148.

Behn, R. D. (1980). Why Murphy was right. Policy Analysis, 361-363.

Porter, T. W., & Smith, D. C. (2005). Tactical implementation and Murphy’s law: factors affecting the severity of problems. Journal of Business Research58(12), 1702-1711.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1985). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. In Environmental Impact Assessment, Technology Assessment, and Risk Analysis (pp. 107-129). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.


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