The Definition of Insanity 🔗

First published . Last modified .

There's a common claim that is often made during arguments of basically any nature: "Albert Einstein once said that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It is often said with an air of smugness that would revolt even the stuffiest of noses.

If you try to find out more about this saying; say, for example, when and in what context did Albert Einstein say it, you will easily find that almost every reliable source agrees that Albert Einstein never said it. Someone once erroneously attributed it to Einsten, and since quote books and websites really only quote older quote books and websites, it stuck. Basically every source that cares to share an opinion, though, will also agree that the quote itself makes sense.

For a second there, let's take it for granted that there's truth to that quote; that is to say, that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insane (or perhaps stupid, a waste of time, whatever). If it were true, let me pose the following question: why did mankind collectively decide to repeatedly use this quote, while misattributing it to Einstein, despite the fact that it clearly does not help to win arguments or cause people to change?

I mean, think about it. This saying is repeated so often, that you'd expect it to have made some difference by now. It hasn't. People are still, for all intents and purposes, insane. People are still, by and large, doing the same things over and over again regardless of results. And people are still using that saying.

Here's my take on why that is:

  1. People, on a whole, do not change their minds/opinions. You can probably think of a few instances in your life where you changed your opinion about something, but on a whole, this doesn't really happen, so quoting that fake Einstein quote over and over again is probably not going to work. I'd go so far as to say that any argument/debate is mostly pointless, because no one is going to change their mind. Think back to all those political discussions (or more accurately "fights") you've had over the years with your friends, families, colleagues and strangers. Think about how whatever they said made your blood boil. Think of how you shouted at them, so angry as if them saying whatever it was they were saying would have somehow brought the destruction of the human race (did it?). Have you, or them, changed your mind? No, you're still fighting to this day. Why are you doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
  2. The saying is wrong, and I don't mean the literal version of "the saying is wrong", i.e. it's wrong because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not, in fact, the definition of insanity (which, obviously, it isn't). No, it's wrong because it does not match our life experiences. You can do the same things over and over again and get different results.

Our lives, and everything about us, are not black and white. We are not pure functions like in mathematics: given the same input, we do not always produce the same output. Neither does anything else in nature; ever heard of the Uncertainty Principal?

Think about something you're good at. Maybe you're good at Basketball, playing guitar, lifting weights, driving, whatever. How did you get good at that? The answer is practice, i.e. the act of doing the same thing over and over again. At first, you sucked, but after doing the same activity many, many times and over a long period of time, you've gotten much, much better.

Ever been stuck on a difficult level of a video game, and retried it again and again and again, until finally you succeeded? What did you do differently that one time that was successful? Odds are you didn't do anything different, you simply developed "muscle memory" and sharper reflexes by trying again and again.

Ever studied for a test? What did you do to remember all those things that were difficult to remember? You read them, again and again and again, until they became burned into your memory.

Things can and do change when we repeat them over and over again. Our muscles grow due to repeated activity. Our brains recognize that things we read again and again are important and memorizes them. Activities we do over and over become "second nature."

Different results for the same actions happen everywhere, all the time. Did you know that there's a term in materials science called "fatigue?" When a certain material is subject to some cyclic loading (for example, a pallet that often has cargo dropped on it; or even a metal bar that repeatedly gets hit with a hammer), eventually (which can take a very long time) this loading will cause the material to crack, and finally fail.

Repeating the same thing over and over again is not insane. It can, however, make someone insane. Ever been in a bad relationship that often included the same exact fights and arguments, again and again? Remember how for most of the time, the arguments always ended the same way, until that one time when one side (perhaps you) absolutely exploded or had a full-on nervous breakdown?

So, please, do mankind a favor and stop using that stupid saying. It's not true, and Einstein didn't say it. Einstein was a smart man, he wouldn't have said such a stupid thing.