The Wall Street Journal mentioned the 1989 classic research study of SMU Psychology Professor Alan Brown in a June 17 news article by Adam Grant about inadvertent plagiarism.

Brown has studied the phenomenon and published the results of his classic study in the scientific article Cryptomnesia: Delineating inadvertent plagiarism in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

Brown’s research now primarily involves how people store and retrieve information about the real world, and the manner in which these processes fail us, including the tip of the tongue experience, where one is momentarily stymied in accessing well-stored knowledge.

Another such phenomenon is the false positive recognition experience of déjà vu, where a present experience seems subjectively familiar when one knows that it is objectively new. Brown is currently extending the TOT research to identify the factors underlying repeated TOTs, and whether these change in frequency with age.

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By Adam Grant
The Wall Street Journal

All good things come to an end. By 1970, the beloved Beatles had decided to go their separate ways.

Within a year, George Harrison reached No. 1 with a solo song, “My Sweet Lord.” But his sweet time at the top was short-lived. Within a month, a lawsuit was filed. Harrison’s song had original lyrics, but shared a melody and harmony with the 1963 hit song by the Chiffons, “He’s So Fine.”

Was the Beatles’ lead guitarist guilty of plagiarism?

Judge Richard Owen, who happened to be a music aficionado, ruled that Harrison was guilty. But he said Harrison’s theft wasn’t intentional; it was accidental and subconscious.

Eventually, Harrison conceded that Owen was right. “I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity between ‘He’s So Fine’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’,” Harrison wrote in his autobiography. “Why didn’t I realize?”

The psychologist Dan Gilbert calls this kleptomnesia: generating an idea that you believe is novel, but in fact was created by someone else. It’s accidental plagiarism, and it’s all too common in creative work.

In a classic demonstration, psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy invited people to brainstorm in groups of four. They took turns generating lists of sports, musical instruments, clothes, or four-legged animals. Each participant generated four ideas from each category. Next, the participants were asked to write down the four ideas that they personally generated for each category.

Alarmingly, a full 75% of participants unintentionally plagiarized, claiming they generated an idea that was in fact offered by another member of their group. And later, the participants wrote down four new ideas for each category. The majority wrote down at least one idea that had already been generated by another group member—usually the group member who’d generated ideas immediately before them.

Were they not paying attention? If so, then surely they’d have been just as likely to plagiarize from their own ideas. But that didn’t happen. While 71% of participants took credit for an idea that a group member had generated, only 8% generated one of their own previous ideas.

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.

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