Sunday, May 21, 2006

Ben Franklin's "Definition of Insanity"

Benjamin Franklin's well-worn aphorism defining insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" is a common crutch for uninspired hacks who find themselves in need of a pithy way of expressing the idea that repeating a particular act is futile. Aside from the obvious offense of it being a cliché, Franklin's sage wisdom also happens to collapse under the most cursory of analyses. To wit: if committing the same action repeatedly and expecting something different to happen is insane, it stands to reason that committing the same action repeatedly and expecting the same result would be, if not the precise definition of sanity, at least by implication a sensible assumption. Yet this is not the case enough of the time to generalize the claim aphoristically. While propositioning an attractive young lady 20 times with the same sleazy pickup line might earn me 20 increasingly painful slaps to the face, many a petulant child has discovered the successful strategy of mercilessly importuning her parents for a popular toy until they finally relent and buy it. And a man who finds himself walking across a rickety rope-bridge may be able to get away with a certain number of stomps upon one of the looser planks, but I doubt he'd be foolhardy enough to try to determine that number himself.

Part of the problem is that Franklin's assertion, blunt and unqualified as it is, fails to take account of the fact that consistent success isn't crucial in every situation. Some cases, such as predicting the weather, strongly favor the highest degree of accuracy possible, while undertakings like soliciting for a date or searching for a job have rather higher fault tolerances. In these situations, "trying one's best" may produce the same results as wildly shifting strategies from instance to instance: denial of the job opportunity or rejection by the desired other. For these tasks, sticking with a consistent methodology offers the advantage of the practice effect: increasing competency with repeated application of properly directed effort.

Indeed, Franklin's little maxim calls into question the very value of practice itself. If we were to take it as presented by its adherents, i.e. as general life advice, the inability to reproduce "Stairway to Heaven" accurately on one's first attempt at playing guitar should be taken as admonition against ever trying again. But reality belies such an interpretation: as Levitt and Dubner colorfully illustrate in a recent column for the NYT, consistent, targeted practice is frequently a more significant factor in success than natural ability. So it's obvious that the Franklin quote is thunderously inapplicable to at least one major subcategory of repetitive activity.

Probability is another fundamental influence the quote ignores. I suppose the behavior of a gambling addict caught in the thrall of a one-armed bandit might be considered "insanity", but it would be unduly harsh to say the same of Western courtship norms, which are characteristically fraught with disappointment for most males. Franklin's diehards might object that hitting on many different women in the hope of scoring a date doesn't really count as "doing the same thing" since the targets are different. But the world changes every single second, which means that every time a person "does the same thing," he does so under circumstances that might just be different enough from the last time for his action to achieve the desired effect this time. This is the essence of chance: even if each iteration individually offers low odds for success, the aggregate probability of at least one successful outcome grows the more frequently the game is played.

The obvious question raised by the above analysis is: under what set(s) of recurring circumstances, if any, would Franklin's advice most consistently apply? It's possible that there's something about the world of politics that makes it especially relevant there, but given the objections detailed above, such a claim would require particularly robust substantiation. The authors of the two exhibits linked to above are both warning their readers that electing the same leaders over and over again and expecting different results isn't very smart. This may sound like sensible counsel, but I'd argue that there's little if any correlation between party-line/pro-incumbent voting tendencies and stable policy outcomes. GOP partisans who've been registered since the 60s have voted for, among other party planks: segregation/states' rights, foreign diplomacy and extrication from an unpopular war (under Nixon); keeping government spending low and foreign policy detente (under Reagan); multilateralism in Gulf War I and the "NWO" (under Bush I); isolationism (the GOP-controlled Congress throughout the '90s); and foreign policy unilateralism, neoconservatism, and expanded federal power (under Bush II). Clearly, sticking to the same voting strategy is no guarantee of consistent results in politics, especially over the long term.

None of the above should be taken to insinuate that applying a single method exclusively to a given problem is inherently virtuous. But since Franklin and his quoters seem hellbent on fetishizing technique alternation (only occasionally considering whether the suggested alternative is actually a good idea), I thought it important to debunk this annoying platitude thoroughly (okay, I had a discursive itch to scratch, and it felt great!). If nothing else, it illustrates the difficulties that arise when an axiom is formulated too strongly: doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results may sometimes be inadvisable, but it is hardly the "definition of insanity."