Trying the same thing and expecting a different result

2012-04-06

in Geek stuff, Psychology, Rants, Science

I’m sure everyone has heard this quote and its variations: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”.

While it may have a kind of folksy charm, I think the position being argued here is plainly false. While there will never be a simple an unambiguous definition for a concept as subjective as ‘insanity’, I think the definition above can be effectively refuted.

First, we need to be careful about what we mean by ‘the same thing’. A man trying to open a pickle jar is likely to do ‘the same thing’ several times – trying to twist off the lid in what he believes to be the right direction. Frequently, the repeated application of effort will do the job. It can be argued that this doesn’t contradict the original claim. ‘Twisting the lid of a pickle jar that I have already twisted five times’ is not ‘the same thing’ as ‘twisting the lid of a pickle jar that I have already twisted four times’. Fair enough, but this interpretation supports the view that repeating the same behaviour can be an intelligent and successful strategy, rather than the mark of mental imbalance.

Second, there is a reasonably admirable practicality involved when a person tries something several times and notes whether the result changes. I might try throwing five darts at a dart board and get a different result with each one. Less trivially, I might apply to ten graduate schools and get a range of answers. In these circumstances, my expectations are more complex than ‘same result’ or ‘different result’. I may well get into nuanced claims like: “I thought it was pretty likely I would hit the dart board, but I had no idea where” or “I am likely to get into some schools, but probably not all of the most prestigious ones’.

The world often involves complicated interactions between phenomena that incorportate chaotic elements. In a world like that, trying the same thing over and over can be an essential way of sorting out what the governing dynamics of a relationship really are. The fact that trial and observation are at the heart of the scientific method are probably why this flippant witticism annoys me so much.

As is often the case, XKCD has already made this point in a more effective and eloquent way than I can.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

alena April 7, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I haven’t heard the quote, but I would also disagree with it. Raising three children has not been an identical experience in any way, but I could see why some would argue that it is insanity. Even a simple thing like joining the scouts is a completely different experience for each person. In fact, parenting largely consists of many repeated actions and yet they rarely have the same results. “Try and try, you’ll succeed at last,” is a more useful motto in parenting.

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