Albert Einstein? Al-Anon? Narcotics Anonymous? Max Nordau? George Bernard Shaw? Samuel Beckett? George A. Kelly? Rita Mae Brown? John Larroquette? Jessie Potter? Werner Erhard?
Dear Quote Investigator: It’s foolish to repeat ineffective actions. One popular formulation presents this point harshly:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
These words are usually credited to the acclaimed genius Albert Einstein. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. It is listed within a section called “Misattributed to Einstein” in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1
The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in October 1981 within a Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper article describing a meeting of Al-Anon, an organization designed to help the families of alcoholics. The journalist described the “Twelve Steps” of Al-Anon which are based on similar steps employed in Alcoholics Anonymous. The newspaper began with these two steps: 2
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
One of the attendees at the meeting hesitated to accept the accuracy of second step. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
Not all the women are willing to admit they needed to be “restored to sanity.” In fact, one of them adamantly maintains that she had never reached a point of insanity. But another remarks, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The second earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a pamphlet printed by the Narcotics Anonymous organization in November 1981: 3
The price may seem higher for the addict who prostitutes for a fix than it is for the addict who merely lies to a doctor, but ultimately both pay with their lives. Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
QI acquired a PDF of the document with the quotation above on the website amonymifoundation.org back in February 2011. The document stated that is was printed in November 1981, and it had a 1981 copyright notice. The website was subsequently reorganized, but the document remains available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine database.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The linkage between insanity and repetition has a long history. The controversial book “Degeneration” by Max Nordau was published in German in 1892 and translated into English by 1895. Nordau examined the works of a variety of artists and savagely attacked those that contained repetition which he believed evinced a mental defect in the creator. For example, he criticized Maurice Maeterlinck’s “La Princesse Maleine”: 4
Has anyone anywhere in the poetry of the two worlds ever seen such complete idiocy? These ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs,’ this want of comprehension of the simplest remarks, this repetition four or five times of the same imbecile expressions, gives the truest conceivable clinical picture of incurable cretinism. These parts are precisely those most extolled by Maeterlinck’s admirers.
When George Bernard Shaw reviewed Nordau’s opus he turned the criticism of repetition back upon the author and suggested that Nordau might diagnose himself as mentally unsound: 5
I have read Max Nordau’s “Degeneration” at your request,—two hundred and sixty thousand mortal words, saying the same thing over and over again. That, as you know, is the way to drive a thing into the mind of the world, though Nordau considers it a symptom of insane “obsession” on the part of writers who do not share his own opinions. His message to the world is that all our characteristically modern works of art are symptoms of disease in the artists, and that these diseased artists are themselves symptoms of the nervous exhaustion of the race by overwork.
The 1955 book “The Psychology of Personal Constructs” by George A. Kelly included a definition that corresponded to the saying under investigation although it employed a different vocabulary: 6
From the standpoint of the psychology of personal constructs we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation. This is an unusual definition, as psychological thinking ordinarily goes.
In October 1981 an educator and counselor on family relationships delivered a speech containing a thematically related adage: 7
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” That was the advice of Jessie Potter, the featured speaker at Friday’s opening of the seventh annual Woman to Woman conference.
More information about the quotation above is available here.
In October 1981 the saying was spoken by an attendee of an Al-Anon meeting as noted previously:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
In November 1981 a pamphlet from Narcotics Anonymous contained a close match as noted previously:
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
The 1983 novel “Sudden Death” by Rita Mae Brown included an instance credited to Jane Fulton who was a character within the book: 8
The trouble with Susan was that she made the same mistakes repeatedly. She’d fall in love with a woman and consume her. Susan thought that her mere presence was enough. What more was there to give? When she tired, usually after a year or so, she’d find another woman.
Unfortunately, Susan didn’t remember what Jane Fulton once said. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
A June 1983 book review of “Sudden Death” in “The Clarion-Ledger” of Jackson, Mississippi reprinted the saying: 9
Women’s tennis gets a thorough dissecting in this story. Jane Fulton is the critical sports writer who contends “Modern professional sports rewards players for function instead of character. Responsibility is normally defined as doing a job better than anyone else.” She looks askance at professional tennis and says “Win and become a god. Lose and be forgotten.” Finally after following the lives and careers of the players, and the game itself, she concludes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Also in 1983 Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, offered a counterpoint perspective in his work “Worstward Ho”: 10
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
In January 1986 the Emmy-winning actor John Larroquette who was a star in the television comedy series “Night Court” shared the definition during a newspaper interview: 11
He pops in a definition of insanity – “It’s the repetition of the same action expecting different results. Like jumping out of a 40-storey building, breaking every bone, spending six months in hospital, going back to the same building, up to the 39th floor, jumping and expecting it to be different. It is NEVER different.”
In April 1986 an opinion piece by Baltazar A. Acevedo Jr in “The Dallas Morning News” of Texas included the saying: 12
I once heard insanity defined as a process by which an individual or a system does something over and over again in the same way while yet expecting different results. To continue to evaluate and address issues in our community strictly along ethnic, instead of human, considerations is insane if only for one reason: It will lead to the polarization that is the standard of paranoid societies.
The 1988 book “Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World” included an instance: 13
Flexibility is the ability to bend when we find ourselves in unworkable positions. A universal characteristic of insanity is inflexibly doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different results. Flexibility in the face of changing circumstances, by contrast, is a hallmark of mental health.
By 1990 the saying was being attributed to Einstein. For example, the “Austin American-Statesman” of Austin, Texas published the following remark made by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle: 14
Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
In 1991 “The Seattle Times” printed the thoughts of an Indiana judge who ascribed another version of the saying to Einstein: 15
The jurist from the Hoosier State subscribes to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.”
In 2000 a columnist working for the Knight Ridder News Service ascribed a version of the saying to the influential lecturer and trainer Werner Erhard although the name was misspelled as “Erhart”: 16
Werner Erhart described insanity as ‘repeating identical behavior and expecting a different result.’ If we repeatedly have difficulties in an area of life, doesn’t it make sense that our behaviors cause the problems?
In 2016 the webcomic “xkcd” depicted two characters conversing; the first mentioned the now well-known definition of insanity, and the second replied with a remark that implicitly and cleverly applied the logic of the definition to his companion: 17
You’ve been quoting that cliché for years. Has it convinced anyone to change their mind yet?
In conclusion, based on current evidence the saying originated in one of the twelve-step communities. Anonymity is greatly valued in these communities, and no specific author has been identified by the many researchers who have explored the provenance of this adage. The linkage to Albert Einstein occurred many years after his death and is unsupported.
Image Notes: Two arrows pointing at one another from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Portrait of Albert Einstein circa 1921 by Ferdinand Schmutzer accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to MJ Redman, Kevin Ashton, Melinda Denson, Linda Sternhill Davis, The Muser, Mededitor, Santanu Vasant, Simon Lancaster, Michael Cochran, David Meadows, J Carson, Guilherme Simões, Ed Darrell, Lee Winkelman, and Fabius Maximus (Ed.) whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the volunteer researchers Quora and Wikiquote who mentioned the Narcotics Anonymous citation. Also, thanks to the valuable research conducted by Barry Popik, Ben Zimmer, and Daniel Gackle. Many thanks to Bill Mullins who located the important October 11, 1981 citation.)
Update History: On July 31, 2019 the October 11, 1981 citation was added to the article.
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Misattributed to Einstein, Quote Page 474, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1981 October 11, The Knoxville News-Sentinel Al-Anon Helps Family, Friends to Orderly Lives by Betsy Pickle (Living Today Staff Writer), Quote Page F17, Column 2, Knoxville, Tennessee. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1981, Narcotics Anonymous Pamphlet, (Basic Text Approval Form, Unpublished Literary Work), Chapter Four: How It Works, Step Two, Page 11, Printed November 1981, Copyright 1981, W.S.C.-Literature Sub-Committee of Narcotics Anonymous], World Service Conference of Narcotics Anonymous. (Accessed at amonymifoundation.org on October 3, 2011; website has been restructured; text is available via Internet Archive Wayback Machine Snapshot January 1, 2013 link PDF of pamphlet link ↩
- 1895 Copyright, Degeneration by Max Nordau (Max Simon Nordau) (Translated from the Second Edition of the German Work), Quote Page 238, D. Appleton and Company. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 July 27, Liberty, Volume 11, Number 6, A Degenerate’s View of Nordau by Bernard Shaw, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Published by Benj. R Tucker, New York. (Reprint in 1970 by Greenwood Reprint Corporation, Westport, Connecticut)(HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1955, The Psychology of Personal Constructs by George A. Kelly, Volume 2: Clinical Diagnosis and Psychotherapy, Quote Page 831, Published by W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1981 October 24, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Search For Quality Called Key To Life by Tom Ahern, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1983, Sudden Death by Rita Mae Brown, Chapter 4, Quote Page 68, Published by Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983 June 19, The Clarion-Ledger, “Sudden Death” a complex metaphor by Stephen L. Silberman, (Book review of “Sudden Death” by Rita Mae Brown), Quote Page 7H, Column 2, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1983, Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett, Quote Page 7, Grove Press Inc., New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1986 January 5, The Sydney Morning Herald, Television with Jacqueline Lee Lewes: From drugs, drink to… Night Court: ‘Confessions of an Emmy Star, Quote Page 31, Column 3, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1986 April 25, The Dallas Morning News, Leadership Beyond Ethnicity Should Be Goal of Dallasites by Baltazar A. Acevedo Jr., Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1988 Copyright, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World: Seven Building Blocks for Developing Capable Young People by H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen, Quote Page 174, Published by Prima Publishing & Communications, Rocklin, California. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1990 November 19, Austin American-Statesman, Section: News, Prison Puzzle – Threat of cost explosion poses difficult choices by Mike Ward, Quote Page A1, Austin, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 July 4, The Seattle Times, Section: Editorial, Getting Out of the Freedom Business by Don Williamson, Quote Page A8, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2000 July 30, The Indianapolis Star, Get a plan to overcome trouble spots by Tim O’Brien (Knight Ridder News Service), Quote Page J3, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- Website: xkcd Comic, Comic title: Insanity, Comic author: Randall Munroe, Date on website: March 18, 2016, Website description: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. (Accessed xkcd.com on March 23, 2017) link ↩