Newsweek has an interesting article about the reality of unconscious plagiarism – otherwise known as ‘cryptomnesia’.
The article describes apparently genuine cases in terms of source memory – the ability to not only to remember information but also where it came from. When you remember a great idea, was it one of yours, it did you read it in a book, or hear it from a friend?
In the lab this has usually been tested by relatively simple experiments where participants are asked to read out words, imagine themselves reading out words and hear words being read out.
They’re then shown another list, and they have to say whether they’ve encountered the word before and, if so, did they hear it, read it or imagine it.
There are many variations on this simple idea, but all of which show that we routinely mistake information from other people as something we generated ourselves.
Psychologist Marcia Johnson has done a huge amount of work on how we monitor the source of our memories and how distortions affect what she calls ‘reality monitoring’.
It turns out that memories don’t have a specific source tag, like a mental label. We infer where they came from based on their content. There are many things have been found to be important, but even something as simple as the sensory vividness of the memory is known to have a big effect.
So the idea is that sometimes we present other people’s ideas as our own, not because we’re being deliberately dishonest, but because we genuinely think we came up with it in the first place because of source memory failure.
The Newsweek article covers how this applies to writers and journalists and some of the recent research which tackles exactly these sort of memory distortions.
However, it doesn’t mention perhaps the most famous of cryptomnesia – where a judged ruled that ex-Beatle George Harrison had unconsciously plagiarised the Chiffons’ He’s so Fine in his own track My Sweet Lord.
And this is exactly where it gets a bit murky, because it’s never clear whether someone has unconsciously plagiarised, or just plagiarised, because it relies on making a judgement about someone else’s intentions.
Link to Newsweek article on cryptomnesia.