‘Definition of Insanity’: Did Albert Einstein Really Coin This Famous Phrase?

Misattributions to Einstein abound. Is this one of them?
Albert Einstein is credited with more famous quotations than he actually came up with.
Albert Einstein is credited with more famous quotations than he actually came up with. / George Rinhart/GettyImages
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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” It’s a well-circulated quote—often printed on inspirational posters adorning classroom and office walls—that gets invoked when someone wants to point to the futility of making the same mistake over and over again. Some attribute it to famed physicist Albert Einstein.

While Einstein is a fount of wisdom who’s come up with some pretty memorable quotes, the insanity definition isn’t one of them.

Einstein is among a number of historical figures who are often subject to misattribution due to both their fame and perceived wisdom. It’s an easy way for someone—or someone’s meme—to quickly establish credibility for a phrase. (Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln  are some of the others.)

Garson O’Toole, author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations (2017), has debunked several of these citations. In examining the “insanity” quote, O’Toole found no evidence of Einstein imparting the thought. Instead, he discovered the phrase likely originated in the early 1980s—some 25 years following Einstein’s death in 1955—at 12-step meetings.

During a 1981 gathering of Alcoholics Anonymous, a participant was overheard by a journalist uttering the phrase, a possible reference to using other unsuccessful strategies to deal with their substance abuse issues. It was quickly and closely echoed in a pamphlet for Narcotics Anonymous that same year, albeit in a slightly different format: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

These mentions seemed to be enough for the quote to reach the zeitgeist. In a 1983 novel titled Sudden Death, author Rita Mae Brown has a character using the quote.

So how did this utterance leap from Al-Anon to Einstein? That’s harder to pinpoint, but it wasn’t really the internet’s doing. The Einstein connection can be seen as far back as 1990, when newspapers quoted a district attorney attaching the quote to the scientist.

According to Merriam-Webster, the actual definition of insanity is “a severely disordered state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder.” Accurate, but not quite as catchy.

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