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Can Memories Be Plagiarized?

Psychology Today

It’s not just stories, jokes, and songs: personal memories can be purloined too.

Last summer I accused my husband of stealing my memory. We were preparing to take our kids to a zip-line adventure park with another family, and my husband informed us that the only time he had been on a zip line was at a waterpark when he was a young boy. He did an unintentional backflip off the zip line and landed in the pool below.

What might have been an amusing anecdote became the center of a heated debate. You see, I had a suspiciously similar memory from the only time I had been on a zip line, which also happened to be at a water park. The difference was that rather than doing a perfect backflip to an applauding audience, as my husband had purportedly done, I was an awkward teen who slipped off the zip line and found myself thrust backwards, out of control, flipping into the pool below and praying that no one saw me.

I was convinced that my husband had stolen my memory, that I had shared this story with him, and that somehow he had taken my experience and usurped it as his own. In the process, he added details that were more appropriate for him (enthusiastic applause).

False memories are not a new thing. Since the groundbreaking work of Elizabeth Loftus, it has been well-documented that people can form rich, false memories of events that they never experienced, from getting lost in a mall to taking a hot air balloon ride. We also know that people can confuse things they see or read about with their own actual experiences. Famous examples include Ronald Reagan’s story of a U.S. pilot’s heroic actions, a tale which seems to have originated in a 1940s war movie, and former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ false memory of the helicopter he was riding in being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War. But what about confusing someone else’s memories with your own?

It turns out that details from someone else’s memories can easily get slipped into your own autobiographical memories. Celia Harris and colleagues asked college students in Sydney, Australia, to describe four personal life events, including their high school graduation dance and their first day at the university. After listening to someone else describe their personal memories of those same events, 90% of the students later incorporated at least one detail from the other person’s memories into their own memories.

Plagiarism can be intentional or unintentional, and research suggests that plagiarized memories are not always accidental. Alan Brown and colleagues surveyed students at Duke University and Southern Methodist University and found that more than half of the college students admitted to borrowing someone else’s personal story or details and claiming them as their own. Reasons for borrowing memories included the desire to own an entertaining story, the wish for a strong connection with their audience, and the convenience of telling a story from a first-person perspective. More than half of the students also reported that they had gotten into a disagreement with someone over which one of them an event had happened to, suggesting that my husband and I are not alone in our dispute.

My husband’s memory has now been corroborated by multiple family members, which may get him off the hook in terms of my accusations of memory theft. However, the accuracy of his shared family memory is still in question. Researchers have shown that retelling events changes how they are remembered and that collaborative remembering can sometimes lead to memory errors. Your memories of your best and worst family vacations have probably been distorted by frequent retellings.

Though it pains me to admit it, my husband likely did do a flip off a zip line. But I still have my doubts about the applause. READ MORE