Monday, 19 September 2011

Doing The Same Thing Over And Over Again And Expecting Different Results

The quote "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" is popular, being widely attributed to Einstein (probably incorrectly). Unfortunately it's often used to support a common and dangerous fallacy: that if you're trying something and it's not working, you must not be using the best strategy and you must try something else.

It's easy to see the fallacy using a thought experiment. Imagine you must regularly play a lottery which offers red tickets and black tickets, and red tickets have twice the probability of winning compared to black tickets. So you choose red tickets, but you don't win. Would Einstein tell you to start choosing black tickets instead? Hopefully not!

When the best available strategy has a low probability of success, sticking to that strategy requires discipline, wisdom and courage. This is one of the themes of The Lord Of The Rings :-). You see people fail by panicking and flailing, abandoning their best hope to try something, anything, and essentially self-destructing.

Of course, one must also avoid stubbornly sticking to a strategy which is not the best available.

Overall it's probably best not to use aphorisms in serious discussions :-).

8 comments:

  1. Also in a way, success is built on failure, you need to fail a number of time in order to progressively learn how you could succeed at the end. Not enough failure means not enough learning.

    Working this way is OK as long as you don't go so far as the Shadok do, cf http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/apache-asserts/2010/09/shared-neurons-and-the-shadoks-first-law-of-failure/index.htm

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  2. The only reliable source I could find for that quote was most certainly no Einstein- rather, it was Rita Mae Brown, a fairly extreme lesbian feminist. I imagine a lot of the people who unthinkingly parrot that quote as something that must be profound because Einstein said it would think twice about it if they had any idea about the real source.

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  3. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is an "EXAMPLE" of the word insanity as it is extremely foolish, senseless, and irrational. FOR EXAMPLE... timing a ball dropping from ten feet, getting the same result 100 times, and still expecting the time to change on the 101st drop.

    I believe the overwhelming majority (although there are some really dumb people who might think that is the actual definition in the dictionary) of people who use the phrase, "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" are actually meaning that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is one exemplification (synonym of definition) of the word insanity.

    And remember, by same that means exactly the same. You can't do something the same but a little different or it's not the same. Quite a few people try to counter the common insanity statement by stating that you can and should get different/better results if you keep doing the same thing over and over again. They are wrong. If you shot a basketball and shot a complete air ball you would ALWAYS shoot a complete air ball if you repeated the same exact movements. To repeat the exact same movements and expect to make it would be insane. Perseverance isn't doing the exact same thing over and over again (although I guess you can still have perseverance and keep doing the same thing over and over again and not succeed) but rather staying dedicated to an end goal by continually making small (and sometimes big) changes that lead to goal attainment. Example...shooting slightly higher above your head, following through more than you did yesterday, flicking your wrist a different way to gain more consistency, etc...

    Insanity Definition 4 (Dictionary.com)
    4. a. extreme foolishness; folly; senselessness; foolhardiness: Trying to drive through that traffic would be pure insanity.
    b. a foolish or senseless action, policy, statement, etc.: We've heard decades of insanities in our political discourse.

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    Replies
    1. Your second paragraph suffers from the fallacy of the illusion of control. Usually success or failure depends on much more than just what you do, but people are unwilling to believe this. Even repeating exactly the same series of actions that previously failed can be successful, if there's a change in the environment. This is the point of my lottery thought experiment.

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  4. What is the actual word for that definition?

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  5. Every time you try again u have to make slight changes. If u do things in an identical manner the results are usually always the same . there must be some variables and constants

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  6. I get up everyday at the same time I go to work i get off the same time I go to bed at the same time the outcome is always the same. I get the same paycheck am I insane? Fuck no. It means it is what is is.

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