Butterfly Stupidity


Perhaps at some point in your life you have been subjected to this precious bit of wisdom:

“The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

First of all, is this not at direct odds with our beloved:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”


“Practice makes perfect”?

I’ve had major beef with Einstein’s definition of stupidity for much of my life. Why? A number of successes in my life have involved precisely doing the same thing over and over again, and finally achieving a different result. Anyone who has ever used Kenyan telephone can tell you that repeating an action, even within a digital environment, can have unpredictable outcomes. I once received a three hundred dollar discount on an airline fare, just by refreshing the trip search several times. That is gospel truth.

If someone throws this thing in your face on a regular basis, and it irks you; I suggest you bring down on them a hammer called Chaos Theory. Let’s have a basic statement:

Sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in such a system is arbitrarily closely approximated by other points with significantly different future trajectories. Thus, an arbitrarily small perturbation of the current trajectory may lead to significantly different future behavior.”

Chaos Theory states that within certain systems, a difference of seemingly insignificant proportions at any given moment, can lead to wildly different results. Chaos theory is by no means just a thought experiment. It has endured a significant amount of scientific rigor. It has practical uses.

While a human being can intend to do the same thing over and over again, from a systemic point of view, he cannot actually do it–at least in terms of setting in motion an identical boundary condition. Let it be a lesson in humility that at any given moment, there is an entire physical universe involved in anything you are doing. I’ll say no more.


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20 Responses to “Butterfly Stupidity”

  1. Ryan Says:

    I really like your argument. There is no way to quote the stupidity quote without being an arrogant jerk, and now I can know in my heart and mind that the jerk is also wrong.

  2. toby Says:

    There are few better feelings in this life, than knowing in both your heart and mind that the jerk is also wrong.

  3. mike Says:

    I have heard that the attribution of that quote to Einstein is likely apocryphal, making its true author an arrogant, inaccurate, and also insecure, jerk.

    However, is it not possible that “Einstein” is purporting to say that, when attempting to achieve a desired outcome, reliance on imperceptible perturbations of current trajectories may not be the wisest of strategies?

  4. maureen Says:

    I love chaos theory, I’m bringing it as a discussion topic tomorrow night, in which it will lead me to discuss string theory.

    Also, you know how I feel about weather.com. Doesn’t get any better than instant access to the weather.

  5. david Says:

    am i the only one who agrees with this statement? practice makes perfect because you’re not doing the same thing over and over again. you’re changing what you’re doing for the better, so you can get the desired outcome.

    and i think the provided real life evidence here isn’t related to the statement at all because they’re flukes. it’s more like, if i’m trying to call toby, and i dial the wrong number, it’s utter stupidity if i continue to dial the wrong number and expect to eventually get toby. that’s hard to argue. could it happen? sure. but that’s a pretty stupid way to go about a task.

    einstien was extremely pragmatic. i’m not sure chaos theory should even enter the conversation. if you have to leap that far to disprove a statement, then the statement must have a vast wealth of validity.

    • ron Says:

      Agree with David and Einstein. We have all seen actions of stupidity. Improving one’s skills or developing the skills to do something is different.

  6. david Says:

    i think i just said what mike said, but in 6 times as many words.

  7. Igford Says:

    I’m with David. “practice makes perfect” and “try again” are not in opposition to the Einstein quote.

    In fact, it falls in line exactly. When you tell someone to try again, you aren’t meaning for them to literally do everything exactly the same. For instance, if you ask someone a question that has a right and a wrong answer, and they get it wrong the first time. If you ask them to try again, and they guess the wrong answer a 2nd time, then they are stupid. No matter how many times they try and guess the same answer, it will always be wrong. A non-stupid person will try again with a different answer.

    That being said, if the question changes, then it’s okay to try the same answer that didn’t work before. But somehow I doubt that Einstein is saying to never do the same thing twice even when the variables have changed.

    And I don’t think quoting this makes someone an arrogant jerk. I think it’s sound advice. I know a lot of people that continually make the same mistakes over and over again and each time they complain about the result. I think chaos theory might come into play here though because the stupidity of someone doing the wrong thing over and over doesn’t exclude someone from getting the desired result. For instance, take a girl who only dates guys who are “extra confident” because she finds that attractive. If she does this over and over again, always breaking up with the guy because he turns out to be an arrogant jerk, then I would definitely not call that girl smart. But that doesn’t mean her way of doing things isn’t going to work. Eventually she might actually get lucky (chaos theory = luck theory?) and find the right guy using the methods she has continually used unsuccessfully.

    Stupid people have things work out for them every now and then too. Just look at me! I figured out how to fix my camera today, after 10 to 20 unsuccessful attempts to clean the lens using my eyeglass cleaner, I finally contacted support and found out that the problem isn’t the lens! Perfect example! No matter how many times I would have tried to clean the lens, it never would have fixed it.

  8. toby Says:

    My Kenyan telephone example is my best defense here. You can call the exact same number from a landline repeatedly, and connect to a different person each time. Dialing a phone number is about as mathematically discrete an act as a human can ever hope to make in the physical world. And in some circumstances, repeating it will yield different results each time.

    Take as another example practicing to shoot a free throw. Beyond a certain level of learning about form, all that practicing does is condition your arms to follow a dependable motion. Unless you are very unlike me, you have no awareness of the arc you are imparting to the ball, in a discrete, repeatable way. As far as your consciousness is concerned you are doing exactly the same thing each time. This is why sportscasters have developed mysterious terminology like “on fire” and “in the zone.”

    If you have ever tried to pick a lock, you probably know exactly what I am talking about. If you are not very good at it, you will run your pick against the bumpers 100 times. The lock will stay locked until that one time when fate lends a hand and the tumblers stick. Then you will have a very different result.

    In Igford’s example of a question with a right and wrong answer there is a caveat. We do not know if the question at hand is dependent on reality, or if it is entirely academic. For example, if I were to ask a two year old what time it is, they might guess a time and be wrong. However, since they have no idea what time it is, and the correct answer to the question is constantly changing, repeating the incorrect answer might be as good a strategy as anything else. Asking the same child what the square root of 49 is would be an entirely different situation, because the question is independent of physical reality. In that situation, repeating the same incorrect answer would NEVER yield a different result.

    If you balk at my Kenyan landline example because the phone system in third world countries are unreliable rat’s nests, I would like to suggest that our physical existence is far more unpredictable. The Kenyan phone system is only a tiny subset of the physical universe. At the very smallest levels, the building blocks of our universe can be in two places at once–can be two THINGS at once, and this fundamental unpredictability ranges all the way up through the orbits of galaxies.

    I completely agree that varying your approach to a problem is always a good idea. All I am trying to get across is that when you are dealing with the real, physical universe, repeating an action many times is not inherently stupid.

  9. david Says:

    can’t let this one go just yet. i agree that the statement is not an absolute. but i think the perspective here is still wonky.

    Free Throws: Of course one is doing exactly the same thing each time, because it DOES more often than not yield the EXPECTED results. In this case, repetition is smart because it’s working.

    Questions: Let’s not forget we’re discussing stupidity, not ignorance. No one blames a child for his ignorance. However, if I saw someone repeatedly asking a 2-year-old for the square root of anything, I wouldn’t hesitate to declare that person stupid, because he apparently EXPECTS the 2-year-old to eventually come up with the answer.

    Finally: The statement doesn’t say that repeating an action many times is inherently stupid. It’s saying the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and EXPECTING different results. This implies that we’re working within the realm of that which we as humans can control. If I keep baking my cake at 500 degrees for 3 hours and EXPECT it at some point to come out right, then I’m stupid. But there’s nothing in the statement that blames one for the imperceptible and uncontrollable effects of the building blocks of the universe or the chaotic forces at play in our mysterious existence.

    I’ll say no more.

  10. Igford Says:

    Oh. Very good point about stupidity having to do with the expectation rather than the repetition of an action.

    Another point about the Kenyan telephone example is that, in Toby’s case, he isn’t necessarily expecting a different result. He is expecting what has happened for him in the past, which is that if he dials the number repeatedly he will get connected to a different person. If it is known beforehand that dialing the same number can connect you to different people, then that’s the expectation. So that doesn’t fall in line with Einstein’s quote about repeating the same action and expecting a different result. In fact, you’re expecting the same result (which is that you’ll be connected to different people). A little confusing… yes. I do believe so.

    Thanks Toby, for the very interesting topic!

  11. toby Says:

    I think Igford has illuminated for me the crux here. I contend that it is possible, even common in the real world; to repeat an identical action and reasonably expect a different result.

    I am definitely not trying to uncouple reason and action here. I am a big fan of novel solutions to problems. I’m just saying that the “Einstein” quote is not iron clad.

    Looking back, I think my best example was the picking of a lock. Unless you are very skilled at it, you may see what I mean. That’s my piece. Thanks for your interest, everybody.

  12. mike Says:

    allow me to suggest a modification of the quote which may satisfy all parties:

    “the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting better results.”

    this allows for the chaos theory premise that seemingly identical inputs may nevertheless produce different results. it also accommodates the second law of thermodynamics which generally holds that, left alone, things naturally tend toward entropy or chaos. thus, it is “stupid” to expect to achieve anything other than, at best, chaotically different results from doing the same thing over and over. of course, the hearer of this advice desires not just a different result, but a better one (unless he truly is stupid).

    also, couldn’t “practice” be defined as the process by which one attempts to consciously eliminate system perturbations? thus, an accomplished free-throw shooter or lock-picker did not arrive at his position through the forces of chaos, but rather by effort directed at eliminating the forces of chaos.

  13. Sage Says:

    If you repeat E=Mc2 often enough, you get an atom bomb. I think ol’ Einstein was saying, “Think outside the box.” In which case, I realized the other day, you enter another box.

    But I think Einstein should be questioned. The guy who invented Big Bang, a Catholic, was originally rebuffed by Einstein who didn’t get it.

    And, to be fair, judging from what he said, Einstein also felt he should be questioned. So maybe we can throw E=Mc2 out (if we haven’t already).

  14. Katherine Says:

    I’m a little late on this one but I will chime in nonetheless.

    This quote is not stupid, it is insane—literally.

    I’ve seen this quote before but instead of “stupidity” it said “insanity”.
    As in:

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

    If it is insanity, not stupidity, I actually like this quote.

    Also, I thought it was attributed to Benjamin Franklin not Einstein?

    Anyway, If it is “insanity” not “stupidity,” it makes a bit more sense. Especially in the scenario David describes above: “If I’m trying to call Toby, and I dial the wrong number, it’s utter stupidity if I continue to dial the wrong number and expect to eventually get Toby.”
    I can see how this could drive a person mad.
    Also if Igford would continue to clean the lens of his camera over and over and over, expecting it to work after every wipe…not only would his cloth incinerate from the friction, but he would probably end up insane as well.

    Lastly, I believe the quote is to be looked at from a psychological perspective; it’s a question of how the human mind works. For instance, coming up with a solution to a mathematical problem using the wrong formula; being infatuated with and desiring someone that doesn’t even know you exist; or trying to lose weight but never sticking to a diet and exercise program— these are all tasks that require a person to be in certain state of mind or at least have a plan. Some people expect different results in their lives but do not change their mentality or life approach. They keep using the same method over and over and over and over again, expecting that someday somehow it will lead to a different outcome. And it might, but insanity may occur first; thus once you do reach a different/desired outcome, you are too crazy to even recognize or appreciate it.

  15. Kari Says:

    Did anyone else realize that it is NOT Einstein’s defintion of stupidity it IS Einstein’s definition of INSANITY.

  16. Jens Says:

    I think maybe you need to think about the initial conditions. In the case of the Kenyan phone system, the initial condition when it works, and when it doesn’t work are different, and there’s probably some tired repairmen somewhere, who, realising that expecting the phone system to work without them repairing it are probably aware of Einstein’s statement.

  17. William Says:

    The quote is absolutely correct. to the gent with the free throw problem. You do not do the exact same thing each time, each shot ia an attempt to correct the failure of the pravious one.

  18. vika Says:

    you’re an idiot. einstein was a scientist, probably used scientific method. hence dealt in variables. in trying and trying again or practising to make perfect you include the variable of human improvement. what he means is that if you repeat the exact same experiement, leaving all variables unchanged, and expect a different result THEN you are stupid. like adding two and two and waiting for a result other than four. having a beef with a genius is another deinition of stupidity. we don’t call them geniuses without good reason.

  19. vika Says:

    sage is an idiot also. you don’t just throw working models out for no good reason. you need to have solid argument debunking or refuting them first. suggesting we just throw out E=mc2, for the hell of it, not even understanding what it means is like suggesting someone say Copernicus is wrong, lets just go back to saying the sun revolves around the Earth. While the theory works, and is the best in place, why get rid of it???

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