Is Unconscious Plagiarism a Real Phenomenon?

The charge of plagiarism carries a special sort of shame. Take the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, the young writer whose 2006 debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, contained so many passages lifted from other books that her writing career was over by her junior year at Harvard. For those whose literary taste is at the opposite end of the spectrum from chick lit, consider Dante: he put the fraudulent in an even deeper circle of hell than the violent.

But could some alleged plagiarists—like Maureen Dowd, Chris Anderson, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and even Viswanathan, who all either deny the charge, or blame their copying on unconscious mistakes—be guilty of psychological sloppiness rather than fraud? Could the real offense be disregard for the mind's subliminal kleptomania? And if it is real, is unconscious copying (or "cryptomnesia" to those who study the phenomenon) preventable? Or, seeing as Nietzsche ripped off a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra from something he'd read as a child, and former Beatle George Harrison was found guilty, in court, of unconsciously copying the music for his hit song, "My Sweet Lord"—is cryptomnesia both unavoidable, and the perfect excuse?

"Clearly all of us, referring to journalists, probably appropriate phrases or ideas, on occasion, without realizing it," said Howard Schneider, dean of the School of Journalism at New York's Stony Brook University, and former Newsday editor. But intent and degree count, he said, and journalists should be held to a particularly high standard when it comes to plagiarism. Schneider, who helped set up the News Literacy Center at Stony Brook, teaches his students about the brain's susceptibility to certain psychological pitfalls, such as: seeing a political commercial between TV newscasts, and then a week later attributing the information in the commercial to the newscast itself. He believes that journalists are susceptible to similar influences.

According to Richard L. Marsh, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia and a leading cryptomnesia researcher, Schneider is on the right track. "When people engage in creative activity, they are so involved in generating or coming up with something new or novel that they fail to protect against what they previously experienced," said Marsh. Over the last 20 years, Marsh has designed numerous models for studying cryptomnesia in the lab. An early study involved asking subjects to work with an unseen "partner" (actually a computer) to find unique words in a square array of letters, similar to the game Boggle. A short while after completing this task, the researchers asked each participant to recall the words they had personally found, and to generate new words neither the participant nor the participant's partner had previously been able to find.

The subjects plagiarized their partners roughly 32 percent of the time when trying to recall their own words, and up to 28 percent of the time when attempting to find previously unidentified words in the puzzle. Not only was plagiarism rampant, many subjects who plagiarized also checked a box indicating they were "positive" their answers had not previously been given by their partners.

Henry Roediger, a memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said that cryptomnesia is partially caused by the lopsidedness of our memories: it's easier to remember information than it is to remember its source. Under the right conditions, this quirk can even evoke false memories. In one study, the more times Roediger instructed participants to imagine performing a basic action (like, "sharpen the pencil") the more likely the participants were to recall—incorrectly—having actually performed the action when asked about it later.

But misattributing memories from one source to another, whether from imagination to reality or from a friend to oneself, is only one of the psychological quirks behind unconscious plagiarism. Another is implicit memory, which Dan Schacter, a psychologist at Harvard, called, "the fact that we can sometimes remember information without knowing that we're remembering it."

The classic demonstration of implicit memory involves a psychological technique known as priming. When a person is exposed to a list of words (or "primed") in one setting, than later asked to come up with words from a specific category, say "types of fruit," in another setting, the person is more likely to name fruit that had appeared during the priming session than fruit that hadn't.

This result may not seem all that exciting, except that it also occurs with amnesiacs, who are unable to form conscious memories of the actual priming session. At the most basic level, says Schacter, this suggests that implicit memories are formed in different regions or systems of the brain than conscious memories. This disconnect, coupled with errors in remembering the source of ideas, words, or even whole phrases, may be responsible for cryptomnesia. "Unconscious plagiarism makes it sound like a pretty exceptional and unusual circumstance," said Roediger. "But I really think that at a very simple level, these things are happening all the time. You know, your friend uses some expression and you pick it up and use it too."

While unconscious plagiarism is embarrassing in cases where original creative output is expected, in most aspects of daily life it ranges from useful to indispensible. What is called cryptomnesia in one context is known as social learning theory in another. For example, children learn how to behave by unconsciously copying others, and friends strengthen their relationships when they assimilate each other's phrases, behaviors, and opinions.

But before we give high-profile cryptomnesiacs a free pass, as if they were suffering from an intractable psychological disorder, there's a bit more to know. Cryptomnesia happens more frequently between those who trust one another, such as people in romantic relationships or close friendships, but less frequently between strangers—particularly when the one whose ideas or words might be plagiarized is present. And due to our innate skepticism, unconsciously copying a person one doesn't know, or a source one doesn't yet trust, is uncommon.

We may plagiarize without knowing it, but we can guard against the risk with a little conscious effort. Taking diligent notes, reminding oneself to remember not just a good idea, but also its source, or simply pondering whether the clever phrase that popped into one's head is original, helps fend off cryptomnesia. Over the course of his research, Marsh has found that cryptomnesia is greatly reduced with subtle social pressure: if you are asked to come up with solutions to a problem in a group setting, and then quizzed on your contributions to the discussion afterward, you might unconsciously steal from fellow group members if the quiz takes place in private—but not if it takes place in front of the original group.

Unconscious plagiarism does exist, but writers who don't take proactive steps to avoid it are often either being lazy, or they have a diminished fear of being caught. Driving is a good model: it is easy enough to drift over the speed limit without being aware of it, but vigilant drivers can prevent the habit by forcing themselves to pay conscious attention to the problem. And just as not knowing one's speed won't save one from a ticket, the fact that unconscious plagiarism isn't outright fraud doesn't make "It was cryptomnesia!" much of an excuse. Unconscious plagiarism may not be a "felony," said Schneider, but it's still a journalistic "misdemeanor."

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