“The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein
Perhaps, like many people, you’ve seen this quotation attributed to Albert Einstein before. You likely didn’t blink seeing it at the beginning of the article. I certainly didn’t when a writer for my former school newspaper turned it in. In fact, all of our editors had seen that quotation attributed to Einstein in the past, and did not think to look into it further. When observant readers got back to us pointing out that there’s little to no evidence Einstein did ever say this, we did look into it, though, and we realized there’s actually a lively debate about the origins of this quotation. It’s been attributed to all sorts of people: Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Confucius, an old Chinese proverb, and most famously Albert Einstein, but there is little to no proof that any of them ever said such a thing.
What’s really interesting about all this misattribution is that nobody actually knows where the phrase came from. One source traces it back to the mystery writer Rita Mae Brown. The phrase “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” can be found in her 1983 book Sudden Death. Still, it appears that she was merely paraphrasing an expression that had been written elsewhere. Many point to a Narcotics Anonymous text, released in 1981, as the original source for this saying. Others point out that it seems to have been in oral use in the addiction-recovery community before that, as it was cited in a pamphlet from an addiction-recovery program in 1980, and in an Alcoholics Anonymous text published during the same year. However, the original version of this Alcoholics Anonymous text does not appear to be online; Google Books, for example, only has the 1992 version.
Still, some do say that Einstein did say this phrase at some point, even if he didn’t make it up. Several online sources cite his “Letters to Solovine,” from the 1950s. Others attribute the phrase to Einstein and say that he used it during the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, a transcript of which was eventually published in 1975.
In the end, it’s most likely that Albert Einstein did not invent this phrase, though it is possible that at one point he may have said it. Instead, people are using Einstein as a mouthpiece for things they want said. Einstein, who is perceived as being the archetype of indisputable genius, is the perfect candidate for having words put in his mouth; if Albert Einstein said it, there must be some truth to it. Thus, despite the fact that—to quote John Green—“Albert Einstein was a physicist, not a quotation-generation machine,” people continue to cite him as the author of various phrases.