1657: Insanity

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
I looked up "insanity" in like 10 different dictionaries and none of them said anything like that. Neither did the DSM-4. But I'll keep looking. Maybe it's in the DSM-5!
Title text: I looked up "insanity" in like 10 different dictionaries and none of them said anything like that. Neither did the DSM-4. But I'll keep looking. Maybe it's in the DSM-5!


In this comic White Hat quotes a famous "definition of insanity" (usually attributed to Albert Einstein, but may be a loose paraphrasing from Narcotics Anonymous) adapted by Rita Mae Brown or others historically.

Cueball's answer applies the quote to the action of quoting that quote. White Hat seems to have quoted that quote quite a few times already, expecting people to change their behavior which hasn't happened so far. So according to that definition of insanity, it is insane to keep quoting the definition of insanity, expecting people to change their behavior because of that.

The title text implies that Randall would be "insane" according to the quote he used in the comic because he has repeatedly searched for a definition of insanity that matches the one quotes in the comic and of course always gets a negative result, since this is a personal quote not a definition. Besides searching in lots of dictionaries, he also looked in the DSM-4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition). The DSM-5 has been available since May 18, 2013 and he plans to look into it, expecting different results. Since he won't find it, he is from the quote insane, but of course since this turns out to not be the definition of insanity then he might not be anyway.

This comic follows a pattern similar to 1339: When You Assume.

For a different view on the topic of repetition in experimentation, see 242: The Difference.


[Cueball is walking towards the right of the panel with White Hat walking behind him holding a finger up as to make a point.]
White Hat: They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Cueball: You've been quoting that cliché for years. Has it convinced anyone to change their mind yet?


  • "Insanity" does not appear as a word in DSM-5, but appears twice in DSM-IV and once in DSM-IV-tr. One of those instances is a reference in the introduction only to early 19th century attempts to classify "idiocy/insanity", as a US Census statistical category, and not a medical one per se. The other, which was removed from DSM-IV-tr, isn't a clinical definition, but descriptive of fears due to hallucinogens, of "insanity or death". OED 3rd Edition (subscription online only) discusses archaic medical, literature, and legal meanings, from the 16th to 19th centuries, and sidenotes in red the caveat that the word first included in 1900 is overdue for updates not completed for the current edition of OED. Their definition is cited as based on archaic legal usage, not medical usage.
  • Given that xkcd revolves around pedantics and precise syntax, it appears Randall made an error by citing "DSM-4", as there's no such thing. DSM-IV (1994) and DSM-IV-tr (2000) are editions prior to DSM-5 (2013). With that error, Randall missed a chance for a secondary implicit comment about "neurotic shrinks" turning the APA policy change to switch from Roman numerals to decimal digits with DSM-5 into a huge internal controversy, as well as comparing the xkcd text about rigid doctrinal hypocrisy to the social fluidity of indirectly legally defined so-called mental illnesses, when both DSM-III and DSM-IV have had interim text revisions.
  • Merriam-Webster defines "insane" as "exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind" or "unable to think in a clear or sensible way."
  • There are over 100 instances of "insanity" present in each of "Black's Law Dictionary" (9th Ed), and "Gale (formerly West's) Encyclopedia of American Law" (3rd Ed). The APA (American Psychiatric Association) "Goldwater Rule" that stemmed from the former Presidential candidate bars members from making public statements about the apparent sanity or disorders of public figures they haven't personally examined, even if such lawyers or politicians appear to pose a serious risk of harm to others.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


And we are back to White Hat being the "fall" guy, which he was not in his last discussion with Cueball in 1640: Super Bowl Context. It was so rare that it was mentioned at the bottom of the explanation for that comic ;-) --Kynde (talk) 14:10, 18 March 2016 (UTC)

I don't know why everyone quotes a mathematician's definition of insanity instead of, say, a paychologist's. 17:16, 18 March 2016 (UTC)

Psychology Today it turns out has written about this (Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP, July 27, 2009 [1]), and calls "insanity" a legal term, where Psychologists may inform courts over some of the law criteria, but neither define nor decide if anyone so qualifies. Lawyers are demonstrably "insane" to the extent they have arbitrary process to impose binary judgments on people or society, over issues where that's often unrealistic in terms of human rights or larger models of justice. Loki57 (talk) 21:15, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

Both this Lancet DOI: [2] and [other articles [3]] have recently discussed how US industrial medicine and politics are at odds with United Nations backed human rights law, as to access to medical treatment in general, and over mental health issues as medical disabilities. The US civil rights branch of HHS has actively denied being out of compliance with that human rights law, in ways where the facts show otherwise. Perhaps that reflects ways where all of Nietzsche, Ruiz, and Krishnamurti, from their respective European, South American, and Asian perspectives, have described societies as often being insane, and "it is no measure of sanity to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society" (contrary to practice of many US Psychologists or social workers to claim the opposite)? Loki57 (talk) 21:15, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

I do not think checking various sources fills the requirements for this definition of insanity, as one may find what they are looking for eventually. It is conceivable that some dictionary may include the quote as a definition sometime in the future. A person would have to look up the definition of insanity in the same book, where the text will not change, repeatedly to fulfill this definition. 18:08, 18 March 2016 (UTC)

If Randall DID find the definition of insanity in the DSM-V that correlates to the definition, or in some random dictionary, would that still make him insane, or would it enter a Catch-22 scenario in which he is both insane and sane? 18:08, 18 March 2016 (UTC)

Re "switch from Roman numerals to decimal digits," decimal makes more sense, but I still think of our numerals as "Arabic." Miamiclay (talk) 22:04, 18 March 2016 (UTC)

If it had switched to Arabic numerals it wouldn't be DSM-V but DSM-٥ 21:24, 19 March 2016 (UTC)
Roman numerals are also decimal (if you use the broader definition). While the positional number schema, and the according digits, we use are indeed referred to as Arabic numerals, Hindu-Arabic numerals or Indo-Arabic numerals. If your focus is on the font rather than the writing schema, it can be called Western-Arabic numerals or European numerals.-- 06:51, 20 March 2016 (UTC)

This comic reminds me of another recent one, though I can't figure out which. Suggestions? It was the same form where White Hat said something common, and Cueball turned it around Mikemk (talk) 01:01, 19 March 2016 (UTC)

Could it be this one: 1592: Overthinking? That is the only recent comic that fit the bill. It could also be this one 1386: People are Stupid but that is close to two years old. I just looked through comics with White Hat --Kynde (talk) 12:08, 19 March 2016 (UTC)
It's not either of those, maybe I'll figure it out. Mikemk (talk) 04:15, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

Cueball's response raises a pertinent query. The above-mentioned axiom does not take into account the fact that an action can only be so precisely measured and these micromeasures are going to differ each time. Depending on the values changed, there will be a different result that may be big enough to be noticeable. 08:11, 19 March 2016 (UTC)

My thoughts exactly. This is precisely how science works. Rare events may require the exact same experiment to be performed hundreds, even millions, of times to observe, for example at CERN. Seriously, what numpty came up with this definition? Cosmogoblin (talk) 18:45, 19 March 2016 (UTC)
It's commonly attributed to Albert Einstein. Mikemk (talk) 04:34, 21 March 2016 (UTC)
Yes, this; for which I'd think of Heraclitus: "You could not step twice into the same river." Elvenivle (talk) 05:15, 20 March 2016 (UTC)

Its worth noting that the DSM-5 has had a fairly strong negative response, and made a number of controversial changes. So in some ways you may find what you're looking for in DSM-5. Of course, the direction of movement is such that if a definition of insane had been in DSM-IV it likely wouldn't be in DSM-5. Its also worth noting that Insanity is at its heart a legal definition and not a medical one. 11:52, 19 March 2016 (UTC)

This attribution clearly isn't exact from Narcotics Anonymous, whose 1981 draft document old link is invalid, but is saved in Brewster's Archives [4] pdf page 25, last sentence of paragraph 5. It does appear to be a direct quote of Rita Mae Brown's 1982 paraphrasing, or what may originate decades earlier with AA's Bill Wilson, or others. While Quora discusses the possible but iffy Einstein attribution [5], math and science would break down if use of Monte Carlo analysis in statistical models or finance were treated as abnormal, while astronomers would lose key tools to locate planets near distant stars, and particle physicists means to detect energy wave anomalies. Randall has at least 5-10 future xkcd's to draw based on this discussion. Loki57 (talk) 21:15, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

Yes, it is not the definition of the word. But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is still pretty insane, no? 17:25, 22 March 2016 (UTC)

It seems that after Reginald and Beartato got into trouble once, it's now happening the other way round with one of the comics Randall says he enjoys. -- 00:26, 1 April 2016 (UTC)

The origins of the saying were discussed with some detail in a March 2017 article on the Quote Investigator website. I suggest that the link be added in the Explanation section, alongside (or in replacement of) the Quora link.

"Cueball's answer applies the QUOTE to the action of QUOTING that QUOTE. White Hat seems to have QUOTED that QUOTE QUITE a few times already." Wow, that's six words starting with 'q' in 1 and a half sentences. Quite a quirky and quaky quest, if a quiet, qualified quorum qua a quartet (or quintet) of quizzers were to query, question, and quote me after a quick queue. Trogdor147 (talk) 23:34, 18 May 2023 (UTC)