Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results

Albert Einstein? Narcotics Anonymous? Max Nordau? George Bernard Shaw? 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 a pamphlet printed by the Narcotics Anonymous organization in 1981. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

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 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.

Instances of the saying have been employed by other twelve-step organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results


  1. 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)
  2. 1981, Narcotics Anonymous Pamphlet, (Basic Text Approval Form, Unpublished Literary Work), Chapter Four: How It Works, Step Two, Page 11, Printed November 1981, Copyright 1981, W.S.C.-Literature Sub-Committee of Narcotics Anonymous],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 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

If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You Always Get What You’ve Always Gotten

Henry Ford? Jessie Potter? Dayle K. Maloney? Cathy Bolger? Susan Jeffers? Jackie “Moms” Mabley? Tony Robbins? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Why do people repeat foolish, ineffective, or self-destructive behaviors? Self-help books contain an adage about the consequences of thoughtless repetition. Here are three versions:

1) If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

2) If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

3) If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.

This saying has been credited to the automotive tycoon Henry Ford and the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press has an entry for this expression. Interestingly, researchers have only been able to trace it back to the 1980s. 1

The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Milwaukee Sentinel” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1981. The speaker was an educator and counselor on family relationships and human sexuality named Jessie Potter who worked for a non-profit organization she founded. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“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.

The director of the National Institute for Human Relationships in Oak Lawn, Ill., Ms. Potter drew on anecdotes and frank comments about sex and love in asserting that change is needed in the American way of growing up, falling in love, raising a family and growing old.

The phrasing of the adage is highly variable; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The linkage to Henry Ford who died in 1947 appears to be spurious. Jessie Potter helped to popularize the saying, and she may have coined it, but uncertainty remains.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You Always Get What You’ve Always Gotten


  1. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 57, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 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)