The Grammarphobia Blog

Einstein? It’s all relative

Q: I used to work in management training, where this saying was cited in arguing for innovation — “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. BrainyQuote attributes it to Einstein, but gives no evidence. Is this one of those “quotes” that float around until someone decides to give a brainy person credit for it?

A: The words are correct—more or less—but the attribution is wrong.

The Yale Book of Quotations says the American novelist Rita Mae Brown, not Albert Einstein, is the source of the earliest known appearance of the quotation in print.

However, a similar quotation appeared around the same time in a book published by Narcotics Anonymous and two years earlier in an unpublished draft of the NA book.

There are also tantalizing suggestions that the quote may have been floating around in the addiction-recovery movement even earlier than that.

The quotation can be found in chapter four of Brown’s novel Sudden Death (1983). We’ll quote a couple of relevant paragraphs to provide some context:

“The trouble with Susan was that she made the same mistakes repeatedly. She’d fall in love with a woman and consume her. Susan thought that her mere presence was enough. What more was there to give? When she tired, usually after a year or so, she’d find another woman.

“Unfortunately, Susan didn’t remember what Jane Fulton once said. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.’ ” 

(The “Jane Fulton” referred to is another character in the novel.)

A similar quote—“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”—appeared on page 11 of an unpublished 1981 draft of a book on recovery prepared by Narcotics Anonymous.

But that was a working draft. The approved version wasn’t published until 1983, when it appeared in the book Narcotics Anonymous. That was the same year Brown’s novel appeared.

Another version of the quotation appeared in a pamphlet, Step 2: Coming to Believe (Rev. ed.), published in 1992 by the Hazelden Foundation, an addiction-treatment organization.

In the pamphlet, a recovering addict is quoted as saying, “When I came into the program, I heard that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

We’ve seen suggestions that a 1980 version of the Step 2 pamphlet might have contained that quotation. But we’ve read the 1980 pamphlet, which is very different, and the quote isn’t there.

We wouldn’t be surprised, though, if an earlier source shows up, perhaps in the addiction-treatment movement, as more published works become digitized.

However, it’s not likely to be Einstein, whose writings are well known. Nor Mark Twain or Benjamin Franklin, as some Internet sites have claimed.

We’ve written before on our blog about “quote magnets,” famous people who get credited for every catchy quote that comes down the pike.

Perhaps the most popular quote magnets of all time are Twain and Winston Churchill. Runners-up include Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln, and Dorothy Parker.

They all said and wrote many quotable things—but not all the quotable things they’re credited with.

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