Einstein on misattribution: ‘I probably didn’t say that.’

Here’s a fun one. In today’s paper, we ran an editorial criticizing the way elections have been handled in Gallatin County and beyond. The editorial opens with a paraphrase of a quote from Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting the same result.

The keen reader — which apparently was not me yesterday when I copyedited this editorial — will note that the sense of the paraphrase is wrong. It should be:

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

I regret the error. However, this is where the fun begins.

I began looking into the quote to find out what Einstein actually said only to find that, in all likelihood, he never actually said or wrote the witticism about insanity.

According to Ryan Howes, writing in Psychology Today, the quote has been attributed to Einstein, Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. A good summary of the various places the quote has been used can be found here.

Franklin and Twain are almost certainly not the sources of the quote, witty as those fellows were. Online, sources commonly attribute the quote to Einstein in his Letters to Solovine: 1906-1955, although no one seems to be able to produce a page from that volume that holds the quote (and Google books searches have also come up empty).

An earlier version of the quote came from author Rita Mae Brown’s novel Sudden Death, published by Bantam in 1983. In the novel, Brown writes:

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

However, the Wikiquote page for Rita Mae Brown has this interesting tidbit: An even earlier version of the quote can be found in the Narcotics Anonymous “Basic Text,” released in November 1981 (PDF). And here’s some more evidence that the quote was published even earlier, in a Hazelden Foundation pamphlet from 1980.

At any rate, it doesn’t look like Einstein came up with the gem, but as one of the sites I found on this wild goose chase put it: It’s not surprising that it has been attributed to Einstein, since everything but the Book of Genesis has been attributed to him at some point.

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  • alberto-a-stone

    The definition of ignorance is quoting the same thing over and over even though it is not factual. – by Albert Einstein (LOL)

  • Dollarhide

    the definition of insanity is quoting Einstein over and over and expecting to be thought to be clever each time

  • knowitall

    Though he did say that one cannot solve a problem with the same conciousness that created it, which is basically just wording it differently.

  • michelleCU

    If a tree falls in the woods and I don’t care am I insane? Ok actually insanity doesn’t exist there’s just wrong and right and knowing the difference. I could try everyday to climb a mountain even if I fall every time it’s called determination. Good day

    • Jose Gonzalez

      Sorry there is no such thing as right or wrong . There is only choice e=mc

      • Thomas

        oh, there is right and wrong alright – don’t be a coward, stand up for something – only those pathologically inclined to take the cosmic view of everything insist there’s no right or wrong – a childish approach in practice, adds no value to any decision process

      • Phoenix

        Is your statement “there is no right or wrong” right then? Or is it wrong?

  • Pirovano

    “everything but the Book of Genesis has been attributed to him at some point.”

    Well that is not true.

    Moreover, droll sayings are often routinely credited to George Bernard Shaw or Mark Twain, or Oscar Wild. But Einstein is not in that fraternity. Nor is his one famous quip, with respect to Planck’s quantum theory: God is subtle but not malicious, humorous.

    Neither is the designated definition of insanity a witticism. It is not funny or particularly clever. At best it contains a partial truth, and not a very profound one.

    Einstein, after achieving his theory of relativity and special theory, in his twenties, spent the rest of his life concentrating on an elusive,unifying principle, which essentially, would lasso the whole of physics. He never found it but ever kept looking. Two thirds of his career was devoted, without success, to that quest.

    Conceivably, at some point, Einstein self diagnosed that compulsion, that endlessly unproductive search, one which he just could not abandon for more accessible challenges, as a form of insanity.

    • http://www.hypercrit.net/ Michael Becker

      It’s called hyperbole. Good grief.

      • lethalenoki

        Mr. Becker, I for one appreciate this piece. I am a scientist and have had this quote used against me, mostly by non-scientists who know nothing of the tribulations of research, in order to somehow discredit what we do. “EVEN THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENTIST THINKS SCIENCE IS RIDICULOUS.” – I think this is usually what they are getting at.

        Also, based on the other comments, particularly the one you are replying to, I think you have learned a lesson. If you write a piece about Einstein, no matter the context, the world’s most verbose, pedantic, and downright bizarre buzzkills will make sure to fill up your comments with self-righteous out-of-context nonsense.

    • Tom Kaye


      Who ever said, God is subtle but not malicious?

      “Not a witticism”? Please define. Not a profound truth? According to whom?

      Yes, it’s true. Einstein kinda peaked with relativity (both special and general) and failed to do much after that, but spent his life trying over and over again, but following different ideas.

      So what have you been doing since you won your Nobel Prize?

  • Slaaneshi Cultist

    That’s still not the definition of insanity. Not even close. Insanity isn’t a definable thing. It’s the word people use to describe behavior for which they can’t explain the cause. It’s cool you made this article, but you should have addressed the fact that not only is the original quote not witty, it’s plainly stupid.

  • God

    OMg what when is STEM ever not considered the word of God?