International House of Dan: "the definition of insanity..."

Saturday, October 02, 2010

"the definition of insanity..."

... is NOT "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result", or any variation of that.

Also, Einstein did not first use the phrase, Ben Franklin did not first use the phrase, Mark Twain did not first use the phrase, and an unknown author of Chinese proverbs did not first use the phrase. Rita Mae Brown (Martina Navratilova's ex) did use it in her 1983 book "Sudden Death", and Alcoholics Anonymous seems to have used it since the early 20th century. There are other verified early uses of the phrase, and some unverified attributions - including to Einstein - but the author of this annoying phrase remains unknown (intentionally, I suspect...).

So, what IS the definition of insanity? Merriam-Webster contains the following entry:

1 : a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia)
2 : such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from criminal or civil responsibility
3 a : extreme folly or unreasonableness b : something utterly foolish or unreasonable

Nothing there remotely close to "doing the same thing over and over again" - but Merriam-Webster also contains the following entry:

: continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition : the action or condition or an instance of persevering : steadfastness

"Perseverance", you may recall, is the virtue behind "practice makes perfect", and what kept Abraham Lincoln running for office over and over again despite losing over and over again (or something like that). Perseverance is the idea that by working at something we can expect better results, or that things worth attempting are worth attempting more than once. Perseverance is not "insane", we praise perseverance - but perseverance can go too far, and become something else: perseveration.

Again, Merriam-Webster:

: continuation of something (as repetition of a word) usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point

There is an informative piece in a Psychology Today blog from last year about this "insanity" quote. It stresses the difference between "perseverance" and "perseveration" and points out that the quote can have a destructive effect when people "use it in the service of avoidance, which is a defense mechanism." Of course that's not to say that perseverance can't be dangerous as well: at what point did Steve Urkel's infatuation with Laura Winslow cross the line between "perseverance" and "stalking"?

The point is that the use of quotes such as the one about "the definition of insanity" has the destructive effect of reducing dialogue and thinking to thoughtless slogans - something that happens too much in our society as it is. When people use that quote they eliminate the opportunity to discuss options and to properly assess situations. When you work on your jump shot, you are not necessarily just shooting a ball at a hoop 100 times and irrationally hoping it goes in after missing the first 89 attempts, you are making subtle adjustments to your timing, release, follow-through, etc. When you run for office a fifth time after losing the first four times you are not necessarily just irrationally throwing your name in the ring again, you may be counting on changing issues, context, and voters to pitch a platform that may have finally grown on people. When you run for office a fifth time after winning the last four and you still haven't been able to fix a problem it doesn't mean the voters are insane - the reality is that political climate, outside events, and other politicians may have prevented you from instituting your agenda.

The quote also has a destructive effect on language - I mean, doing something over and over again and expecting different results is literally not "the definition of insanity" - but I think it has the most destructive effect on our nation, because politicians use it instead of ideas and we let them get away with it.


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