Insanity Is Repeating the Same Stupid Cliche Over and Over

One of the worst cliches is the claim, frequently though almost certainly incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is, of course, false and trivially false at that.

Whenever I hear people say something along those lines, I wonder what they expect to happen if they flip a coin. Say, they flip a coin once and it comes up heads. Do these folks expect all future coin flips to come up heads until the end of time?

In fact there are so many counterexamples to this particular claim, that its hard to understand how it ever became popular cliche (unless the attribution to Einstein was sufficient).

Update – May 2009: This phrase seems to originate in a 1983 novel by Rita Mae Brown. If anyone knows of an instance of the phrase appearing in print prior to 1983, I’d to know about it.

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19 Comments

  • Conwict

    December 9, 2008

    I feel somewhat vindicated…why does everyone love this quote so much? It’s almost impossible for me to think of an instance where repeating the same action over and over again WOULDN’T yield different results.

    Further, it doesn’t even have the redeeming qualities of a more useful cliche that isn’t entirely true, such as “All’s well that ends well.”

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  • barrinmb

    May 16, 2009

    You’re looking at this in the wrong way. You assume this is applicable to random events and things dictated by chance. Einstein was a physicist. I have to assume he was referring to this in regard to science or another similarly rigorous field. Science requires repeatable results, and expecting success when you’ve failed 100 times in a row during an experiment… well, you get the picture.

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  • Brian Carnell

    May 19, 2009

    barrinmb wrote:

    *sigh*. Some people just never get it.

    You assume this is applicable to random events and things dictated by chance. Einstein was a physicist. I have to assume he was referring to this in regard to science or another similarly rigorous field.

    Um, no. You *assume* that Einstein actually said this, which is implausible at best since this quote is not to be found in any of Einstein’s publications or letters. In fact, so far there don’t appear to be any uses of this phrase prior to a a 1983 novel which seems to be the true origin of this awful, stupid cliche.

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  • bucket

    July 28, 2009

    According to wiki, this phase originated from Rita Mae Brown.
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Rita_Mae_Brown
    “This same quote has also been variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and an old Chinese proverb”

    Anyway, it really depends on what point of view you take for this phase. For whatever view you take, I hope it benefits you. Results don’t lie.

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  • Zenosonik

    August 24, 2009

    Hello,

    Whilst I am neither contending nor validating the origin of this cliche, it is in my opinion a moot point. One that I’ll leave to others who have a propensity towards spending their free time arguing or debating for whatever reasons that I’ll refrain from adding what they appear to be. Well… I’ll add one common reason & that’s the obvious defending of one’s point of view scenario that we all know too well.

    Now to the whole reason I signed up here was to hopefully assist in clarifying the intended meaning of this so called cliche. First of all, who cares wether or not it’s a cliche or not? I guess that’s an empty question I know. However, if we really want to get into the semantics of it all, then almost everything in the modern world could be called a cliche.
    Saying Hello is a cliche. Having a website is a cliche. Using roman letters is a cliche? It’s ridiculous right? In some respects I agree. Enough of the mindless qualifying and asides from me.

    The point of “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” is obvious when one has either willingness and or the ability to relinquish or look outside of their own limiting preconceived ideas or opinions.
    Here’s an analogy that might clarify this so called cliched phrase’s meaning. Crudeness is sometimes the most effestive way to bring understanding I have found. So if anyone has an issue with bathroom topics, then I advise them to stop here and go back to wonderland;)

    Here goes!

    If one were to wipe their A*SES with sandpaper one thousand times and still be left with the expectation that the one thousandth and first wipe would actually leave your behind not only baby fresh, but free of those previously produced sandpaper burns on their A*SES as well… Well? You got it! That would be insanity!

    Insanity is me signing up just to say that though isn’t it? Or maybe I just give to much of a Sh*T;)

    Btw… I’m with bucket on all that he shared. Right on as the cliche goes;)

    Peace out & Blah blah blah swani non cliche voodoo hocus pocus,

    Zeno

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  • Zenosonik

    August 24, 2009

    p.s. I didn’t have time to proofread, so I have decided to add this notice just in case the point of what I had written above were to become conveniently ignored in favor of grammar bashing and the like:) You never can tell how someone might act right? Even now;)

    Off to work…

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  • judykins

    October 20, 2009

    It refers to behaviours. Drinking. Drinking to excess..Before you start out you say to yourself, this time it will be different. But you still get drunk. Abusive relationships. You give it yet another try. The person is sorry. Again. You say to yourself, this time it will be different. When will you learn. The definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviour over and over again and expecting different results. When will you get it. It won’t change. The only thing that will change it –is if you stop doing it.

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  • Steve

    February 20, 2010

    It is clear that neither the author of this article nor the responders have a clue what the quote actually means. It applies to any number of situations. Like trying to appeal to a legal justice system with an obviously horrible tax law, but any legal appeals always fall on deaf ears. Or to a marriage where you try to break through to someone with love, but they keep being tyrannical to you no matter what you do. At the point that you realize that continued attempts are futile, you state the quote and realize you have been insane to keep trying. You stop doing what you have been doing. You either give up and leave or you do something drastic instead of the same misdirected attempt you did in the first place. It is certainly not about flipping a coin.

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  • John

    February 24, 2010

    2 years later and I am still reading this stupid “insanity” cliche all over the internet (and hearing it on TV & radio). It adds nothing whatsoever to any argument.

    It is annoying as hell.

    If I ever hear someone say this in real life, I will punch that person in the face.

    Thank you for providing a place for me to post this.

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  • Mark

    February 28, 2010

    Luckily for me we’re never likely to meet face to face 🙂

    It has its application, just not where entropy may be involved. For instance, the most recent events in the never ending Israel/Palestine. I mean, what are the odds of one day one side waking up from sleep, bolting upright, giving themselves a dope slope and saying aloud “Damn we’re idiots! Maybe we should make nice?”.

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  • Chozen 2

    July 10, 2010

    This is an old cliche, however in the instance of making the same bad choices over and over and expecting a different result… it is true! I have in fact seen this scenario oh too many times in my line of work. In the world of addictions many people get cleaned up, apply the 12 steps, and actually make great strides in redeeming the quality of life they left behind chasing a high. When they let down their guard and go back to the same old people, places, and things… they end up with the same result over and over again. That is a form of insanity because if he or she were in their right frame of mind… they would not go back. ; ^ 0

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  • Anna

    August 9, 2010

    I believe the quote to go something like this…

    “Insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result”

    This would be correct. However, I am not sure where these words changed, doing the same thing over and repeating the same thing over are two totally different things. I would agree that doing something over and over would yield different results (coin toss), however, if one is repeating the same action over and over and expecting the result to change, that can be insanity. And I also don’t think that it was meant so literally.

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  • ignorance is not bliss, it is ignorance (ignoring objectively substantiated facts and keeping to one's opinion)

    July 31, 2011

    @ZENO. You say, “MOOT POINT”. Look up the word moot. It means debatable and that is what is taking place in the forum. Don’t feel bad, most misuse it. As to why, is truly moot unless there is some sound, irrefutable studies that validate something very specific that has been shown to reoccur time and again under controlled conditions with isolation of various variables.

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  • Glen Robinson

    December 29, 2011

    Your “coin toss” analogy is faulty, in that tossiing the coin a number of times does, in fact, ALWAYS yield the same result, which is ONLY “heads or tails,” and should be the “expected result”.
    Thus, while “tossing a coin” has multiple (2) possible “results”, this finite expectation is predictible and precise, no matter how many times it is repeated.
    To toss this coin over and over, expecting OTHER THAN “heads” or “tails”, now THAT’S “Insanity”, as defined by this cliche……………..

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  • courtney

    January 14, 2012

    hi my names courtney, i was reading all the comments and i think im going insane.. there’s this girl that admitted to me through facebook that she had feelings for me the first time we talked , wer both in the same group i go to every wednesday, i have a girlfriend who ive been with for a year and a half and i love her to pieces. but i’ve had feelings for this other girl too and im in a sticky situation. i do the same action 12 times hoping to get a positive outcome, i drink 12 gulps of coke from the bottle, i do everything in 12’s hoping i could get to kiss this girl and get to spend time with her and think positive everytime i do my pattern.any advice?

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  • Nick

    February 15, 2012

    The quote means if you repeat something that has only one clear resolution and you keep repeating it over and over expecting a different result then you’re crazy – you’re insane.

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