Between stimulus and response

A quote in search of an author

Brian Salomaki
Nov 16, 2016 · 3 min read

Update (2018–02–18): Many thanks to Garson O’Toole, aka Quote Investigator, for continuing this research. You can find the results of his extensive investigation at In summary, the rough idea and phrases may have come from a few different sources but Stephen R. Covey seems to be the first one to phrase it in the form most often seen today.

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Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

— Author Unknown

This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s almost always attributed to Viktor Frankl, psychologist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

The quote stands profoundly by itself and communicates a key piece of mindfulness, but I wanted to understand better the original context. So I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning, all the time anticipating the section with that quote.

I got to the end without ever encountering it.

Figuring it must show up in another work of his, I began searching online and couldn’t find anything original. Just dozens of copies of the quote attributed to Frankl without mentioning the work or speech where he actually said it.

The real source where this entered popular culture seems to be 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. He includes a section on being proactive (the first of the seven habits) titled “Between Stimulus and Response” that talks about Frankl and uses the language of the quote:

Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

But while he talks about Frankl embodying the spirit of the quote, he doesn’t attribute those words to Frankl or to anyone else. Later writings by Covey confirm that even he didn’t know the source.

The oldest occurrence of the quote in Google Books is from a preface written by Covey in 2004:

In 1969 I took a sabbatical from my university teaching to write a book. Wandering through the stacks of a university library in Hawaii one day, I pulled down a book, opened it, and read three lines that truly changed my life. They became the foundation for my own work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here are the lines:

Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space lies your freedom and power to choose your response.
In those responses lie your growth and your happiness.

He goes on to mention Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning, but never actually implies that the book he read in 1969 was written by Frankl.

Another preface by Covey from 2004 expands:

I did not note the name of the author, so I’ve never been able to give proper attribution. On a later trip to Hawaii I even went back to find the source and found the library building itself was no longer present.

And here my search is stuck. I can’t find any older references or other clues.

So to you, dear Medium reader and master of internet and offline research, I ask you: can you help find the original source of this quote?

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