Albert Einstein was one of the most significant scientific geniuses of the 20th century. His theories helped scientists break through some of the barriers to our understanding the physical world and the universe. He also contributed greatly to the philosophy of science. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the quote, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is attributed to him? Alas, Buzzkillers, quotes like this seem to attach themselves to Einstein at the speed of light, and there’s no evidence he ever said it. (By the way, two other brainiacs and quote attractors, Ben Franklin and Mark Twain, are also credited with coining this idea.)
The “definition of insanity” quote first appeared in 1981, in a document published by Narcotics Anonymous. It was a sort of guide book for addicts who trying to overcome their disease, and it warned its readers that, “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Narcotics Anonymous was trying to convince its members that continuing to use narcotic drugs and expecting to be able to stop on their own was folly.
It’s not insanity, however, to keep listening to Professor Buzzkill. In fact, listening and subscribing is the definition of enlightenment. So make sure to rate and review our podcast on iTunes and tell all your friends to subscribe and join the ranks of the enlightened.
Professor Buzzkill sometimes goes by the alias Joseph Coohill, a historian of modern Britain and Ireland. In addition to his Oxford doctorate, Coohill has an MA in history from the University of Melbourne (where he was a big fan of Essendon Aussie Rules Football Club) and a BA from Humboldt State University in California (where he was the only non-stoner). He is the author of Ideas of the Liberal Party and Ireland: a Short History (4 editions), as well as many articles and internet pieces on history.
The definition of insanity
One commenter says "the definition of insanity was Einstein ... who else has it been attributed to???" Well, it is often attributed to Einstein, and also to Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, but so far there's no proof it existed before about 1980.
In the excellent Yale Book of Quotations (2006) -- a scholarly collection, not just a roundup of favorite alleged sayings -- editor Fred R. Shapiro found the earliest statement of the sentiment in Rita Mae Brown's "Sudden Death," published in 1983: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."
And just last month, at the Answers.com entry (which also cites Brown), commenter Davidt 9 offered a slight antedating:
The quote "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results" is contained in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous which was published in 1982. The review form of the book was distributed to members in 1981 and work on the book began in 1979. All of this predates Rita Mae Brown's book.He gave a link to the book, which does, as advertised, have the relevant quote on page 11 (25th page of the PDF). I also found a 1980 pamphlet from the Hazelden Foundation, "Step Two: The Promise of Hope," which quotes the same aphorism, so perhaps it got its start in the literature of addiction and recovery.
And of course there may not be an original author; probably these three sources picked up a formulation that had been percolating in the spoken language, possibly in less eloquent variations, just as it was settling into the pithy form we now consider good enough for Einstein.
*Unsuccessfully, to judge from the comments and e-mail.