“The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time

Attention all writers! You're all writing the same thing over and over again. Now that's insanity

Topics: Albert Einstein, insanity, Slate, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek,

"The definition of insanity" is the most overused cliché of all timeAlbert Einstein (Credit: AP)

It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Very, very, very often said.

The old saw, which has been most commonly attributed to Albert Einstein by folks who tend to imply he may not have said it (it’s not actually attributed anywhere), comes up again and again in journalism. Not least because it’s a favored phrase of the Clintons, it’s most commonly used to describe political news — after all, by the third time a minority party in Congress tries unsuccessfully to obstruct a bill, there aren’t very many new things to say about it, and that column won’t write itself.

Even so, journalists for the publications we skimmed through (and yes, Salon is hardly immune) ought to heed their own adage. No matter how many times, over and over, the same aphorism crops up, it’s not going to suddenly become perceptive.



“If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then House Republicans might look potty.” –”Why Republicans Can’t Relax,” Slate, Aug. 2, 2013

“On the Democratic side, Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) responded by saying, ‘Einstein observed that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the full expectation that the results are going to be different.’ Actually, the quote is probably apocryphal — but Einstein didn’t live to see the 113th Congress.” –”On Obamacare, Republicans Test the Limits of Insanity,” the Washington Post, July 17, 2013

“They say that the essence of futility is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. But is that what key government forecasters are doing in determining their outlook for the economy?” –”Forecasters Keep Thinking There’s a Recovery Just Around the Corner. They’re Always Wrong,” the Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2013

“Are you familiar with the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Jackpot. A man agrees to let Palma come over tomorrow evening. He’s been trying to sell his house for $375,000. If Palma has his way, it will be cheaper.” –”It’s Their Default Position,” the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 13, 2013

“They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action, and expecting a different result. By that measure, Congress has lost its mind.” –”Over the Cliff and Back,” the New York Times, Jan. 4, 2013

“If doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity, expecting people whom we overwhelmingly rewarded for acting in one manner to change that behavior is more than a bit naïve, as any parent knows or finds out quickly.” –”A Lesson in Accountability as U.S. Goes Over Fiscal Cliff,” the Huffington Post, Jan. 1, 2013

“Increasing the debt ceiling should be part of any year-end deal. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.” –”Fiscal-Cliff Deal Done Now,” the Daily Beast, Dec. 19, 2012

“They say doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a definition of crazy. But Ann [Coulter] and her many, many imitators and predecessors made life easier for Obama.” –”The Five People Who Won the Election for Obama,” Slate, Nov. 9, 2012

“George Joseph must think that the old saw defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result doesn’t apply to him — or at least that it’s amenable to tweaking.” –”Prop. 33 is Billionaire’s Attempt to Manipulate Public Policy,” the Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2012

“The Definition of Insanity… Is doing the same thing over and over again …” –”The Definition of Insanity,” the New York Times, Aug. 31, 2012

“Insanity is doing something over and over, but expecting a different result. That pretty well describes campaign finance reform in America.” –”The Only Way to Fix Campaign-Finance Regulation Is to Destroy It,” the Atlantic, July 30, 2012

“Holding that vote once makes sense. Republicans had promised that much during the 2010 campaign. But 33 times? If doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result makes you insane, what does doing the same thing 33 times and expecting a different result make you?” –”14 Reasons Why This Is the Worst Congress Ever,” the Washington Post, July 13, 2012

“‘The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results,’ Einstein famously proclaimed. In Cheerful In 3 ½ Months, spotted last week at the NY Art Book Fair, author Gerard Jansen invites you to do precisely the opposite…” –”Exploring Your Creative Side: 7 Playful Activity Books for Adults,” the Atlantic, Oct. 4, 2011

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then these polarized picks show just how crazy Congress has gotten in its echo-chamber isolation.” –”Gang of 6′s Supercommittee Diss,” the Daily Beast, Aug. 10, 2011

“First of all, Einstein had it wrong. Not his theory of relativity. That seems to be holding up quite well (not that I would know). But he’s also the guy who said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Too often, I think that’s really the definition of small business.” –”Insanity Redefined,” the New York Times, July 21, 2011

“Not on the table are the sorts of investments in infrastructure or education that would make us competitive over the longer term. It sounds exactly like what we have just done for 30 years. As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” –”America Undone,” Slate, Nov. 15, 2010

“Do you think my references to insanity are too much? I use them deliberately. Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ Have another look at Devine’s and Broder’s pieces, and tell me these men are other than by definition insane.” –”The Definition of Insanity,” the Huffington Post, Nov. 1, 2010

“Someone wise once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, Americans must be pretty crazy.” –”Americans Think Stimulus Didn’t Work, Want More,” the Atlantic, June 22, 2010

“In the wake of their health care defeat, Republicans in Washington would be wise to remember one famous definition of insanity as repeating the same behavior again and again but expecting different results.” –”Senate Republicans Want Another Benefits Filibuster?,” Time, March 26, 2010

“I’ve been thinking recently about the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The way I was treating obesity definitely qualified as insane.” –”Strong Medicine,” Newsweek, March 13, 2010

“Albert Einstein had an unkind label for those who do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Yet that has been the strategy of McConnell, and congressional Republicans generally, as they have labored over the past several months to defeat any health-care plan proposed by the White House and congressional Democrats.” –”A Speech Stuck on ‘Repeat,’” the Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2009

“It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Yet here we are again, talking about another stimulus bill that somehow would produce a result different from the first.” –”Billions More of the Same Isn’t a Solution,” Politico, July 16, 2009

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results. What exactly do the Young Republicans expect to achieve by electing a 38-year-old woman who thinks racial epithets are acceptable? Also, did I mention that she’s 38?” –”Do NOT Elect a Racist,” the Daily Beast, July 10, 2009

“Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I’ve been hearing about the advent of a new “transformational” politics ever since I reached voting age (which is longer ago than I care to remember).” –”The Age of Reagan,” Slate, June 3, 2008

“One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. But what do you call it if you do the same thing over and over, and keep achieving different results? Is that sanity?” –”Is Anybody Necessary?,” the New York Times, Jan. 14, 2006

“Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” –”Sony Gets Caught With Slipped Discs,” Newsweek, Dec. 4, 2005

“One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different result. Start by planting at the right time of year.” –”Garden Q.&A.,” the New York Times, April 4, 2002

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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