One of my pet peeves is the pseudo wisdom often expressed as: “The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.” When I initially heard it a decade or two or three ago, it was attributed to Einstein, which immediately made me suspicious.
Einstein was too smart to think it, let a lone say that. So, I looked into the matter. While its exact origin seems debatable, one thing clear is Einstein never said it. (1)
It came to mind this morning when a political commentator used it as part of the explanation for Donald Trump’s popularity. Politicians make the same old promises and nothing much changes. So, you want different results, choose a non-politician who has been a very successful businessman. Then the results may be different.
The Donald, if nothing else, is completely different. Sometimes by the day. Who knows what he will say or do next? Making everyone tune in for the latest. The other candidates look like somnambulists compared with Trump.
But back to the quote above about repeating the same mistakes. It is hard to pin down a common definition of insanity, but if there is one common denominator it’s dwelling in a world that is unreal to the rest of us (2). It’s like pornography. We can’t quite define it, but we know a nut case when we see someone acting incoherently (not including drug or alcohol induced).
Expecting different results while repeating the same mistakes is not insanity but folly, arguably our greatest human common denominator.
One small example. I have a friend who has gambled on horses for decades and his worse days at the track are usually tied to an undisciplined approach to betting. He’s careless in handicapping the races (also spelled lazy) and allows his emotions and hopes of getting lucky to prompt unwise decisions, often lathered in beer foam. He has known this for years, but still often repeats those mistakes and kicks himself afterwards. Not for being crazy but for being a fool once again.
A much bigger example. Our two biggest foreign policy mistakes in my lifetime were going into Vietnam and Iraq. Both were prompted by arrogance and ignorance, the arrogance of power and an ignorance of who we were dealing with in those nations, both so-called friends and enemies. The lesson that should have been learned from Vietnam is that our shear military might can not solve problems that are fundamentally political in nature.
But we didn’t learn because we still remained arrogant in our might and largely ignorant of what a quagmire we might be getting into. One of the most distressing things I’ve ever read about American foreign policy came from Richard Holbrooke, a respected albeit controversial diplomat for decades. He said something like this: Those responsible for forging American foreign policy know surprisingly little about the nations for whom they are forging that policy. Not exactly his words, but the gist.
In other words, the elephant of our military is guided through the china shop of international relations by handlers half-blind at best, but still arrogant.
Our inherent human tendency to repeat mistakes is not because of insanity but because of human foibles like greed, delusions, false hopes, arrogance and what have you. Shakespeare summed it up: “What fools these mortals be.” He never said what loonies these mortals be.
By the way, a mistake people have repeated throughout history is to place faith in a demagogue who persuades us he alone can save the day by playing on our emotions and prejudices rather than our rationale side. Demagogues don’t have a great track record historically, but that doesn’t keep people from following the next persuasive demagogue who comes down the pike.
Does anyone come to mind?
(1) When I researched the topic years ago, it seemed Ruby Mae Brown got “the credit” for those words from a novel of her’s published around 1983. Googling the matter recently, both Wikipedia and Cara Santa Maria in HuffPo asserted that Narcotics Anonymous (NA) gets the credit. However, blogger Tyson Moore argues that NA may have gotten the idea from Brown before she published her book and a respondent to her piece says NA actually got it from AA, so more research seems necessary for those who really care to pin it down.
For me, I’ve had enough as the statement sounds good but is just plain wrong.
(2) The increased political polarization over the past few decades has added a caveat to our common sense idea of reality. Politically, we have lost a common sense of reality. Political spin has created separate realities, one viewed from the right and one from the left. That’s why those on the left and those on the right cannot have a meaningful conversation about politics. A dialogue is impossible without shared common assumptions about reality.