Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

I have heard that quote in my clinical practice so many times in the past year that I decided I have to write about it. Somehow this definition has become part of the collective understanding of abnormal psychology and has been terribly misapplied. I don’t know much more about the context of the quote but I am guessing that it was a bit of a humorous comment on science.

First, to critique the quote. If we are going to take this definition seriously to start, then everyone, yes everyone, is insane. Behavioral research in the early part of the twentieth century taught the world about how human beings learn: through long processes of conditioning based on pairings and reinforcement.

Consider this, let’s say someone was taught from a very early age that if you are not getting your way, then you should become a bully. And let’s say that doing so actually produced some big results in many situations. Then let’s say after 20 years of doing this and always having it work out, the person confronts an airline over a flight delay, and the person is not rewarded with a free ticket, instead they are thrown off the flight.

What is the likelihood of the person stopping years of reinforced behavior after that this one trial? Probably very small. The same process would happen again and again, and unless the consequences were too great, the person built some awareness of the process, and had access to other models. This is all called “extinction,” and it is a basic human learning process, not “insanity.”

Another example of this is less clear and involves things like choosing romantic partners. Most of us have some “type” of person that we gravitate toward, and if that person has some unhealthy characteristics (e.g. is an alcoholic, is prone to relationship violence, etc), a person could find him/herself in the same style of dysfunctional relationship over and over again. Often, a link can be made to childhood trauma or family dynamics.

Freud called this “repetition compulsion,” and it later became a big part of “Control Mastery Theory,” a newer school of psychotherapy. The theory is that traumatic events, painful dynamics, or unfinished processes from the past remain in the unconscious and part of our decision making, and we look for opportunities to finally “master” or resolve them in the present time. This again is a very basic human process, and although it can be painful, it is not “insanity.”

So what is insanity? Well there is still a lot of disagreement about it. Legal definitions include someone who is not able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Clinical psychologists would rarely use a word like that, and focus more on psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. Either way, Einstein, as brilliant as he was, is off on this one. And I’d guess he was just poking some fun at us all anyway.

-Will Meek, PhD I also write weekly at my blog: Vancouver Counseling