Home > Memory > How to Become More Adaptive to Negative Outcomes in Life

How to Become More Adaptive to Negative Outcomes in Life

An Unfortunate Event

Sometimes life feels like a progression of unfortunate events. You go and get ice cream and right before you take a bite the cone slips out of your hand, falls and then oozes on the pavement. You go back to the end of the ice cream line and by the time you get to the front they are out of your favorite flavor. It is easy to feel this way when you are having a bad day or if you are incredibly stressed by an overbearing workload. People also tend to feel this way around deadlines especially if nothing is going their way. For example, as a student you may have had a day like this. You walk into class and realize you left your assignment in another notebook. After class you check your phone and see a rejection email from the summer internship you had your heart set on. Just as you are putting your phone away you drop it and the screen cracks. Meanwhile the kid standing next to you asks how your final paper is going. In that moment you realize you wrote the due date incorrectly on your planner. A minute later you get a text from your lab partner (on your shattered phone) saying that tonight is the only night she can meet to work on the final project. It feels as if every possible thing in your life has gone wrong.

The tendency to think that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong is actually a cognitive bias called Murphy’s Law. Stress and mood are two crucial elements that play a role in shaping the cognitions of this bias. By altering these elements you can reshape your negative thoughts into positive ones in order to avoid Murphy’s Law. Unfortunately, Captain Edward Murphy Jr., an engineer in the Air Force, had not figured this out. In 1949, he was involved in a design test for a rocket sled in which all 16-accelerator instruments were either installed incorrectly or managed to fail. The publicity of this epic failure led to Murphy’s Law in which he told the press “everything that can go wrong will go wrong—at the worst possible moment.” This jaded outlook gave rise to many other laws and observations of unfavorable outcomes in life.

Murphy’s Law Cartoon

Positive moods are also associated with several other cognitive benefits. Positive moods help facilitate various alternative interpretations of situations (Murray et al., 1990). They also promote cognitive flexibility, which is beneficial in adapting to environments, creatively finding relevant solutions and using cognitive strategies to help you reach a goal (Murray et al., 1990). Positive moods can help you come up with alternative interpretations of bad outcomes so that when things go awry you can be adaptive and find another solution. It is not always easy to just snap your fingers and change your mood when life is going poorly. However there are several cognitive coping strategies that can be used to alter your mood, keep you from feeling narrow-minded and ultimately save you from the downward spiral of Murphy’s Law.

One way of altering your negative mood is through a cognitive coping strategy that requires looking at your past-self as a form of motivation (McFarland & Buehler, 2012). By reflecting on memories of your personal characteristics and accomplishments you are able to look at your past-self. It is important to know that although memories can seem impeccably clear they are not always accurate (McBride & Cutting, 2016). This is because memories are not relived. They are reconstructed. Our current perceptions and mental representations can affect how we reconstruct our memories and ideas of our past-selves. Thus you can perceive yourself to be smart and innovative depending upon how you remember the time when you overcame a challenge such as teaching yourself how to use a statistical computer software program. However this only works if the perception of your personal development or qualities motivates you. McFarland & Buehler (2012) found that either idealization or derogation of your past-self can change your negative mood. If you look at your past-self and idealize it because you were able to independently overcome a difficult challenge you can change your mood by motivating and reminding yourself of your intelligence and grit. This encourages a positive mood by promoting the perspective that you have overcome so many challenges that nothing can bring you down! Your idealized past-self can change your mood because it reinforces your capabilities and your abilities to overcome obstacles (McFarland & Buehler, 2012). On the other hand you can be motivated by the derogation of your past-self by thinking about how lazy you used to be and how you want to overcome bigger challenges. Looking at your past-self in this manner can be a motivational tool because it allows you focus on self-improvement. By using these cognitive coping strategies to alter your mood helps you become more adaptive and creative because of your broadened ability to categorize. It also has the added benefit of motivating you to overcome difficult tasks at hand. These cognitive changes can help you circumnavigate Murphy’s Law. However it is also important to pay attention to your stress levels because stress can stir up pessimism and compromise these adaptive advantages.

Stress can be a culprit in creating a pessimistic perspective. It can impact both your cognitions and personality. Shields et al. (2016) revealed associations between stress and pessimism. After working with participants for five consecutive weeks they found that non-severe stress experiences were correlated with personality changes over time, specifically pessimism. One idea behind this is that stress can exhaust psychological resources and cause people to resort to pessimism. Stress has also been associated with affecting brain regions involved in the representation of the self, others and social working memory (Shields et al., 2016). Therefore stress can have an impact on your outlook on life. Being aware of how stress affects you and finding ways of de-stressing can help you repel pessimism. It is important not to let stress compromise our cognitions; otherwise we might lose our adaptations that help us avoid Murphy’s Law.

Murphy’s Law

Stress can be difficult to navigate as it builds through the constraints of time. Deadlines often contribute to increased stress levels. One study that looked at Murphy’s Law found that time pressure limits the chance of detecting problems (Porter & Smith, 2005). This can be crucial in preventing things from going awry. If you are under pressure to complete an assignment you might cut corners and create larger problems for yourself. Simple problems can then become severe problems as you run out of time. One way of handling time pressure is by developing detailed plans and actively considering how and what to do if things go wrong (Porter & Smith, 2005). For example, you can back up your work in case your computer crashes. Actively considering what you can do to avoid negative outcomes can help reduce the adversities in life and help you think of creative and adaptive solutions.

Solving problems of entropy is not exclusive to mathematicians. Wether it is dropping your ice cream cone or forgetting an assignment chaos can be found around every corner of life. As a result, we must learn how to navigate through it, adapt and solve problems. Managing your mood, motivation, and stress levels can help you become resilient and adaptive in times of disorder. Sometimes it feels as if life is unfair and certain individuals have been dealt a lucky hand when in fact Murphy has simply shuffled our deck of cards. When these types of thoughts occur it is important to know how to break down the cognitive barriers that perpetuate and compound negative cognitions. Understanding how your cognitions are affected by pessimism is important in overcoming negative states, especially cognitive biases such as Murphy’s Law.


McBride. M.D., & Cutting. C. J., (2016) Cognitive psychology: theory, process and methodology. Chicago, IL: Sage Publications

McFarland, C., & Buehler, R. (2012). Negative moods and the motivated remembering of past selves: The role of implicit theories of personal stability. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 102(2), 242-263.

Murray, N., Sujan, H., Hirt, E. R., & Sujan, M. (1990). The influence of mood on categorization: A cognitive flexibility interpretation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59411-425.

Porter, T. W., & Smith, D.C. (2005). Tactical implementation and Murphy’s Law: Factors affecting the severity of problems. Journal Of Business Research, 1702-1711.

Shields. G. S., Toussaint, L. L., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Stress-related changes in personality: A longitudinal study of perceived stress and trait pessimism. Journal Of Research In Personality, 6461-68.


  1. May 3rd, 2017 at 21:21 | #1

    I really enjoyed reading your post and getting a good laugh from the introduction, especially during this time of quickly approaching deadlines and considerable stress. Initially, I wouldn’t have thought of the occurrence of Murphy’s Law to be processed by categorization, but once you pointed this out it became very clear. Relating to what we learned in class about categorization, I wonder if perceiving an event like this pessimistically creates an exemplar of the category. Thus the next time this event is about to occur we expect it to go wrong, just as it did before, adding to the phenomenon of Murphy’s Law.

    While reading your post, I was also reminded of the spotlight effect which refers to how we overestimate how much people are paying attention to our appearance or behaviors. Although this effect isn’t entirely related, I wonder how much we actually overestimate the negative events that are happening to us. In our minds, we see ourselves as the center of the world, thus we attend to anything occurring to use more closely than things occurring to someone else. As a result, we experience more stress which, as you said, is culprit for the development of pessimistic thoughts and thus Murphy’s Law.

  2. Yi Feng
    May 9th, 2017 at 13:32 | #2

    This post is very interesting. Your discussion on categorization is inspiring. I have a question about the point that “Positive moods help increase broader associations between categories of different items.” Sometimes is someone is in a bad mood and the person sees a dead animal on the road, the person might regard it as a sign of bad luck instead of interpreting it specifically. What will be the reason for that? Could it be “bias” in the seven sin of memory? Derogation to the past-self can motivate people because it reminds people of their personal growth, but it might also make people think that they have been unfortunate all the time.
    In addition, another post “Under Budget and Over Time: The Planning Fallacy is Why You’re Always Behind Schedule” by Katie Fenton might provide useful advice in planning ahead to reduce time pressure. The planning fallacy refers to the phenomenon that when we make our study plans, we often overestimate our efficiency and underestimate the time needed to finish the task. Therefore we always can’t finish the work we assign to ourselves. Constantly failing to complete our plans might give us more stress and hence make us even less efficient. To save ourselves from stress, we should not only plan ahead but also plan in the right way.

  3. May 14th, 2017 at 11:03 | #3

    Thank you very much for you comment. You bring up some really great points. In terms of derogation of the past-self it will only work if people are motivated by something like personal growth. You are right, if someone thinks that they have been unfortunate all this time it will not work because they will not be motivated to pursue a challenge or change. This is why derogation of past-self might not work for everyone. However I suggest that they try idealizing their past-self instead. If they idealize their past-self they might be more motivated by thinking about what they have accomplished even under all their unfortunate circumstances. Knowing that they have struggled but still gotten through it can be a great motivational tool.
    In terms of your comment about how a bad mood might affect someone to see a sign in terms of bad luck I think you are right about its correlation to memory. However I do not think it is necessarily related to the seven sins. It might be more related to the Knowledge theory of categorization. Since this theory looks at how our concepts are represented in terms of essential structure and is guided by our knowledge of the world seeing a dead animal as opposed to a live one might trigger a negative responses since we have knowledge of how death can be a sad and a painful thing. However seeing a penny being in a good mood might help you categorize it more broadly. So if you see a penny you might think luck instead of seeing a penny and just thinking it is a penny.
    I also really enjoyed your reference to Katie Fenton’s post. I think it is very relevant and also shows us why it is important to have cognitive flexibility. If we think to rigidly we most definitely will be stressed when we fail to meet our plans. Thus cognitive flexibility is very important to develop.

You must be logged in to post a comment.