xkcd Misconceptions Day 2013: The Definition of Insanity

No Finnish version available. I didn’t make one last year, so now I get to say it’s tradition.

It’s the first Tuesday in February again, so I’m continuing with the “tradition” established last year, inspired by the following webcomic strip:

So, first, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page in question.

And next, here’s a random misconception I want to dispel. Not such a big one this year, but annoying nonetheless.

Misconception of the day: That “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is the “definition” of insanity

One of the things that always irritates me is people parroting phrases that sound profound but are actually nonsense or don’t mean anything, or in regards to which the people don’t know what they mean. One of these sayings is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There are three different misconceptions related to this: a) that it was said by either Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin, b) that it’s not plain false, and c) that it makes sense at all.

For a), I am not very interested in who said this thing in the first place and I have no particular expertise to be making statements about that, but it appears the first known printed use of a version of it is by Narcotics Anonymous. They speak of making the same mistakes, which sounds like it might make some sense in terms of addiction.

As for b): If we speak of the version where this is “the definition” or simply what “insanity is,” that would mean every instance of “doing the same thing and expecting different results” would be insanity, whereas nothing else would be — so hearing voices and thinking you’re an alien and there’s a man under your bed waiting to cut off your legs would not necessarily be, but repeatedly clicking “refresh” on your browser would always be. (See also: Wikipedia: insanity.) This also comes down to c): of course that cannot be the definition. It would be a bizarre and useless one. Most people who actually thought about it should realise the absurdity of the notion simply through such examples of what is insanity and what isn’t. Too bad people don’t think about it.

Basically the saying seems to amount to “Doing the same thing over and over again can be irrational,” even that depending entirely on the context. And, you know, ultimately it probably doesn’t matter all that much if people use it badly. But it does irritate me. And in general, a habit of accepting things without thinking about what they mean…. well, that is really not a good thing. Do stop to think.


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