Accidental Plagiarism: Subconscious Memory Failure

People knowledgeable about accidental plagiarism, e.g., Adam Grant (author of the 2013 Give and Take), would say there’s a reasonable chance that the writing of this post or—anyone else’s post—could involve subconsciously stealing at least a little of someone else’s ideas. Key words: accidental, subconscious.

So, what is accidental plagiarism? It’s synonymous, for one thing, with kleptomnesia, a term Grant attributes to psychologist Dan Gilbert. Kleptomnesia involves “generating an idea that you believe is novel, but in fact was created by someone else.” Interestingly, according to Maria Popova, Brainpickings, other psychologists (starting with Alan Brown and Dana Murphy, 1989) have called this by another name, cryptomnesia.

How does accidental plagiarism manifest? Grant offers the example of George Harrison, who, newly out on his own post-Beatles-breakup, was successfully sued regarding his popular “My Sweet Lord.” Why? Too similar to “He’s So Fine” (1963) by the Chiffons. The judge also ruled, though, that at least Harrison likely didn’t mean to do it.

Another songwriting incident occurred very recently. It turns out that Grammy winner Sam Smith‘s highly popular and current “Stay With Me” pretty closely imitates one of Tom Petty’s older hits; because of this, Smith agreed to share writing credits with Petty. Again, it would appear that Smith had no conscious recognition of borrowing from Petty.

It’s not just about songs, of course. Accidental joke theft, for example, is “every comedian’s biggest fear,” says comic Marc Maron (Huffington Post). And very often it’s the category of ideas, quotes, or stories that are unwittingly claimed as one’s own. Sometimes that feels to me like identity theft. But, again, it’s probably not intentional.

Cases of inadvertent creative filching are actually quite common, and various research studies have supported this. In one classic study cited by Grant, 75% of the participants committed unintentional plagiarism.

Grant explains the phenomenon of such memory failure further:

Kleptomnesia happens due to a pragmatic, but peculiar, feature of how human memory is wired. When we encode information, we tend to pay more attention to the content than the source. Once we accept a piece of information as true, we no longer need to worry about where we acquired it.

It’s especially difficult to remember the source of information when we’re busy, distracted, or working on a complex task.

Siri Carpenter, APA, has pointed out that cryptomnesia can actually have benefits, though—for instance, in therapy. Quoting Richard L. Marsh, a cognitive psychologist and researcher of cryptomnesia: “There’s a classic phenomenon in clinical psychology, where a therapist will be trying to get a client to believe something about their behavior, and the client is often resistant at first,” he explains. “Then, the client comes in one day with an ‘insight.’ They’re often not really insights at all–they’re just expressions of what the therapist has been saying.”

(Not unique to therapy, by the way. Think of all the times your great feedback or advice to a friend or partner has been rejected—until one day you hear it reflected back to you as though it’s brand new wonderful stuff.)

On the other hand, can’t the reverse also happen in therapy? Therapists might, for instance, offer oh-so-smart words of wisdom to a client that actually originated elsewhere but feel like one’s own.

Or, better yet in its irony, a therapist’s fabulous idea for a client may have been formulated in an earlier session by the client him- or herself!

What’s anyone to do? Maybe just hope that everyone’s memory is as deficient as the next person’s so that no one will notice? Alternatively, Adam Grant has said that mindfulness goes a long way, as does always doing everything possible to ensure that credit is given where credit is due. (Did I mention that this came from Adam Grant?)

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