“Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism”

The title of this blog post was the title of a poster I came across at a recent conference–the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, which was held this year in Boston, MA. The authors of the poster were Brandy Johnson, from Iowa State University, and Martin Bink, from the U.S. Army Research Institute. Because this relates to one of my previous posts, I thought I’d take a moment to share the main findings…

First, to refresh your memory, unconscious plagiarism (or cryptomnesia) “occurs when an original idea is produced by someone  who is unaware that it was previously generated by someone else at an earlier time” (Johnson & Bink). By this definition, you could even unconsciously plagiarize yourself (i.e. by coming up with an idea, forgetting about it, and later on reproducing the same idea under the impression that you’re being original).

Many studies utilize a group brainstorming paradigm to study cryptomnesia, in which groups of participants orally generate ideas or lists of items (e.g. exemplars of a category). Participants then subsequently attempt to recall their own generated responses, and finally they are asked to generate additional (completely new) responses. Unconscious plagiarism in the second phase–i.e. falsely recalling someone else’s response as your own–is believed to occur because individuals misattribute the source of their memories.

The authors of the poster in question attempted to influence participants’ source monitoring processes by manipulating the social dynamics of a group brainstorming task. In their study, four-person groups of participants were asked to generate responses for two different questions (“What are some ways in which the university might be improved?” and “How can the number of traffic accidents be reduced?”). During this Initial Generation phase, the groups were instructed to orally generate four ideas for each of the two questions. One week later, participants returned for a Final Generation phase. In this phase, participants were asked again to generate four ideas for each of the two questions, but they were explicitly instructed NOT to use any ideas that had been generated during the Initial Generation session. The dependent variable was the proportion of plagiarized ideas at Final Generation.

The primary manipulation in the study was whether participants generated ideas in their original groups or alone during Final Generation. In addition, the modality of response during Final Generation was also manipulated , so that participants either gave their responses aloud or in a written format.

The results showed an interesting interaction between these variables. For participants who completed the Final Generation phase in their original groups, those who offered ideas aloud plagiarized significantly less than those who offered their ideas in a more private, written format. This suggests that responding aloud encouraged participants to use more strict source decision criteria.

In addition, the rates of plagiarism were higher, overall, when participants completed the Final Generation phase on their own.  This supports the researchers’ hypotheses that generating ideas in a group setting contextualizes the information that comes to mind and makes source attribution easier, possibly due to the presence of additional physical and social cues. In contrast to the results described above, participants working alone also plagiarized more when responding aloud than when providing written responses–an unexpected finding that warrants further study.

The take-home message of the study: rates of unconscious plagiarism were lower when participants generated ideas aloud and in a group setting during Final Generation. The authors conclude that responding aloud makes people more careful (i.e. they use a stricter source-monitoring criterion) because they know that their responses will be heard by the entire group. When instructed to write their responses on a piece of paper that no one else can see, however, any “fear of getting caught” by the group is alleviated, and people relax their decision criteria. The rates of unconscious plagiarism rise as a result.


Johnson, B. & Bink, M. “Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism.” Poster presented at the 50th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Boston, MA. (November, 2009)


“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

*    *    *

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: http://www.newsweek.com/id/205560.

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?

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