“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” ~Voltaire

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” ~W.H. Auden

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” ~Samuel Johnson

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Cryptomnesia, also referred to as unconscious or inadvertent plagiarism, describes a situation in which an individual recalls information stored in memory but believes this information to be an original idea or creation. For instance, a person might write a poem believing that the clever verses are his own, only to find out later that segments of his poem are identical to lines written by a famous poet. In this case, the individual is not intentionally trying to pass off another person’s work as his own; rather, he simply did not realize that his product was unoriginal. This memory error can generally be explained in one of two ways: (1) either the idea itself was experienced as unfamiliar when it was recalled, and therefore it was deemed to be “new” and thus original; or (2) the idea was experienced as familiar when it was recalled, but the source of the idea was misattributed (e.g. five musicians collectively brainstorm names for their new band, and, later, both the bassist and the drummer insist that the chosen name had been one of his own contributions to the master list).

In its extreme, unconscious plagiarism is presumably much rarer than the intentional kind, but there have been a few famous cases of cryptomnesia. Helen Keller, at age eleven, wrote a story for children entitled “The Frost King” that turned out to be almost identical to “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby, a children’s author of her time. A piece in the New Yorker about Keller’s life noted, “Margaret Canby’s tale had been spelled to Helen perhaps three years before, and lay dormant in her prodigiously retentive memory; she was entirely oblivious of reproducing phrases not her own” (you can read the full article here).  The accusations of plagiarism, however, were startling for Keller and haunted her for much of her life, which included future allegations of creative inauthenticity. Another famous case of cryptomnesia involved singer George Harrison, who was sued for having plagiarized parts of “He’s So Fine” by Ronald Mack in the composition of his song, “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison claimed the offense was ‘subconscious’ plagiarism; he admitted having heard “He’s So Fine” before, but he insisted that he had not intentionally stolen the melodies.

There has been a good amount of psychological research on the topic of cryptomnesia, and, more broadly, on the subject of source monitoring errors in memory. While I was searching for information online, I came across a recent Newsweek article on cryptomnesia and journalism that summarizes a few such studies nicely, so it’s worth checking out:

There’s one stubborn “Yes, but…” that arises in any discussion of cryptomnesia, though: despite the evidence that unconscious plagiarism can and does sometimes occur, how can you ever really know for sure that a person’s actions were unintentional? How do you separate the liars from the honest cases of source misattribution? In Harrison’s case, it didn’t matter; the judge decided that, even if the plagiarism was ‘subconscious,’ it was still plagiarism, and Harrison was held accountable for the infringement.

For writers and artists, the concept of cryptomnesia raises interesting questions about the many factors that influence our creative processes outside of conscious awareness. To what extent are my short stories my own, and to what extent are they really just amalgamations of all of the short stories that I’ve ever read? To what extent are my characters really personalities of my own creation, rather than derivatives of my favorite protagonists and villains? Can we ever really be truly “original” in our painting, our designing, our writing? Does inspiration come from within, without, or a combination of the two?


Our experiences shape us in more ways than we are aware. I guess that’s why I’ve always said that originality is really nothing more than careful imitation. Writers shouldn’t aim to be original–they should aim to be authentic. It’s just a sad truth that, if piece of writing is both good and original, the good parts usually aren’t original, and the original parts, well…

Huh, that’s strange. Did anyone else just experience déjà-vu?

Discernment and Creativity

I recently (about 5 minutes ago) read a peer-reviewed article entitled, “Discernment and Creativity: How Well Can People Identify Their Most Creative Ideas?”

The title alone is intriguing. It’s hard enough to get our creative muses to speak to us–but now we have to evaluate the quality of that message, too? Seriously, muse…how about we skip this step and you only give me good ideas in the first place? ‘K thanks.

All joking aside, the article title actually does raise an interesting question. For you writers out there: have you ever written a story that you were really jazzed about, and you expected it to be a big hit with your critique group, only to have it torn apart in class/during the meeting? And on the flip side, have you ever written a story that you felt only so-so about, but then it was really well received by your readers?

Discernment–or “the ability to evaluate the creativity of one’s ideas”–is an important component of psychological theories of creativity. Within the construct of “creativity,” there appear to be at least two distinct processes involved: generation (coming up with the ideas) and evaluation (judging all of the ideas, then retaining and revising the best ideas). Although empirical research has focused more on the generation side of the coin, it makes sense why evaluation might matter: there are some ideas that should immediately see the inside of a trash can. Case in point: the Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves (it makes you look like a monk, although I’ll admit the commercial is quite compelling– In other situations–when the ideas have some merit–evaluation can help us decide whether more development is needed or it isn’t worth the extra effort.

When I was about 10, I sent an email to Skittles headquarters with an idea for a new commercial. From what I recall, it had something to do with Jack and the Beanstalk, planting Skittles instead of beans, and growing a beanstalk that spewed the colorful pieces of candy everywhere (remember, memory is fallible; I’ll apologize in advance if I’m misremembering an actual Skittles commercial as my own idea…and this disclaimer is a nice little teaser for my next post, which will deal with cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism!) Anyway, this wasn’t the worst idea in the world, especially for a 10-year-old…but it probably could have been thought out in a little more detail before I sent Skittles an email with a description of the concept and a gracious proclamation that, should they decide to use my idea, I would be fine with receiving 20% of all revenue generated from the ad. (Incidentally, Milton Bradley received a very similar letter from me after I invented a board game for a 4th grade project. I don’t think I mentioned my age in either instance, but my handwriting might have given it away in the latter case.)

In the study mentioned above, Silvia first discusses the idea of accuracy in creativity judgments, and then she sets out to examine (1) whether people are generally discerning and (2) whether some people are more discerning than other people. I’ll skip the finer points of her discussion on accuracy, but basically she points out that there is no “gold standard” for creativity. Creative products don’t have some innate level of creativeness; rather, judgments of creativity are entirely subjective. Instead of accuracy, therefore, it might be more informative to look at extent of agreement of creativity judgments.

Participants in Silvia’s (2008) study completed a variety of measures of personality, cognition, attitudes, and demographics. They also completed four divergent thinking tasks, which are commonly used to study creativity. Two of these tasks were “unusual uses” tasks, in which participants were asked to generate creative uses for two objects, a brick and a knife (it was Miss Ruby, in the attic, with a brick!) . The other two tasks were “instance” tasks, in which participants were asked to list creative responses for both “things that are round” and “things that make noise” (“babies” would fit both categories, I think?). After each task, participants were asked to circle their two most creative responses. Later, three judges independently rated the creativity of all the responses in the study, which were presented to them in an alphabetical list (so the judges did not know which responses came from which participants). Judges read through the entire list of responses once before going back to rate the responses for creativity on a scale of 1 (not at all creative) to 5 (highly creative).

Silvia found that, overall, participants’ ratings of their top two responses agreed with the judges ratings, suggesting that people are generally discerning in their creativity judgments. But were some people in the sample more discerning than others? The personality measures completed by participants examined the “Big Five” personality domains: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Consistent with previous research, people who scored high in openness to experience also had higher creativity scores overall. Interestingly, openness to experience also predicted the extent of agreement between the participants’ ratings and the judges’ ratings–people who scored higher in openness to experience were more discerning as well (better able to pick out their most creative ideas). The opposite was true for conscientiousness–higher conscientiousness scores were associated with lower levels of creativity and less discernment.

The take-home message: it appears that more creative individuals are also more discerning, and both of these traits are linked to an individual’s openness to experience.


I don’t know about you, but now I’m thinking I should go out and have a few adventures, and maybe it’ll help my writing career. One possibility: mountain climbing.

I’ll pack my Snuggie.




Silvia, P. J. (2008). Discernment and creativity: How well can people identify their most creative ideas? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 139-146.

Motivation and Creativity

Why write? Why paint, or draw, or sculpt, or design?

Why be creative at all?


A person is said to be “intrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if there are no apparent rewards for or benefits from performing that activity other than the enjoyment that comes from the activity itself. A person is said to be “extrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if his/her actions are driven by external rewards such as money or praise. In the former case, participation is about the process. In the latter case, participation is a means to an end.

So do we write (or paint, draw, sculpt, or design) because we enjoy it, or do we write because we need to pay the bills?

The majority of writers and artists can probably cite both intrinsic AND extrinsic motivations for doing what they do. But let’s say you started writing solely because you enjoyed it (you were intrinsically motivated to write that poem or short story or novel) and then–what luck!–you started getting paid for it. What would this mean for your love of writing? Would the introduction of  external rewards decrease your intrinsic enjoyment in the activity? And would there be an effect on the quality of your creative product if it was developed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?

These questions are relevant  to the career plans of many budding writers and artists. “If I become a potter,” one might wonder, “and my income becomes dependent on my talents, will it take the fun out of pottery for me?” How one answers this question might mean the difference between declaring an Art major and launching a self-run business or declaring an Economics major and attending Pottery Club meetings on the weekends.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “I love to write, and I’ll love it even more if I can get a book deal.” This might be true, but let’s take a look at some of the scientific research that has been conducted on the topic…

Psychologists have been interested in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for decades. Deci’s (1971) classic study suggested that participants’ intrinsic motivation to perform an activity decreased when money was offered as a reward, but, interestingly, intrinsic motivation actually increased when the external reward was verbal praise. So, the nature of the reward may be an important factor to consider.

Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) conducted a similar study with preschool children who had reported high levels of intrinsic interest in drawing. These participants were asked to engage in a drawing activity, and they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the “expected-award” condition, the children participated in the drawing activity in order to receive a “good player” certificate at the end. In the “unexpected-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, but they still received the “good player” certificate at the end of the task. In the “no-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, and they did not receive a certificate at the end. One to two weeks later, the drawing activity was reintroduced to the children in a classroom context (with no expected rewards), and measures of intrinsic interest were obtained by the researchers, who observed the children from behind a one-way mirror. As expected, children who had been in the “expected-reward” condition subsequently showed lower levels of intrinsic interest in the drawing task than children in the “unexpected-reward” condition or the “no-award” condition. The important thing to note is that the children in all three conditions had roughly equivalent levels of intrinsic interest in drawing prior to the experimental manipulation. Thus, it appears that the introduction of an external incentive resulted in a drop in intrinsic motivation for the children in the “expected-reward” condition (Lepper et al., 1973).

This finding has important implications for educational settings. Teachers typically endorse “positive reinforcement,” often rewarding children with stickers or some other prize for good behavior or a job well done. In this sense, the Lepper et al. (1973) findings might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t rewards a good thing? Oftentimes, they are–but external rewards might also have unintended effects if the child was intrinsically motivated to engage in activity/behavior in the first place–e.g. drawing quietly during free-play time or helping a classmate find a lost toy. Providing external rewards in these cases may reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity/behavior in the future; the focus has shifted from the enjoyment of the activity to the reward. As Deci’s (1971) results implied, verbal praise might be more effective, in the long run, than gold stars.


So what does all this mean for creativity?

Well, for one thing, it supports the notion that, in some circumstances, a person’s enjoyment of a creative endeavor might be undermined if there is a shift from a focus on intrinsic motivation to perform the task to a focus on external rewards. In addition, Amabile (1985) actually found evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation may be conducive to creativity, while extrinsic motivation may impair creativity. Participants wrote poems under conditions of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and these poems were later rated by a panel of judges for their level of “creativity.” Interestingly, poems written by participants in the “extrinsic” condition were rated as less creative (on average) than poems written by participants in the “intrinsic” condition (Amabile, 1985). 

In sum, extrinsic motivation may not only result in decreased intrinsic interest in an activity, but it might also have a negative effect on a person’s overall creativity. The studies I have cited here are quite old, and research in recent years has examined the topic in more depth, focusing on relevant factors such as the type of reward and whether the reward is performance-dependent. The issue is complex, however, and there still seems to be no solid consensus as to whether external rewards consistently undermine intrinsic motivation. (See the references below, and run a Google search if you are interested in learning more!)

Regardless, the ideas raised here are certainly thought-provoking, and I think there is something to be learned from these classic studies: even if you get paid for writing or painting or sculpting, it may be important to remember why you were drawn to that creative endeavor in the first place.

Remember why you love it.





Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and Creativity: Effects of Motivational Orientation on Creative Writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399.

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