Chances are that at some point in your career, you've taken an idea from someone else. I want to know why.
There's a clue in a story about one of the great bands of our time.
All good things come to an end, and 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.
It’s especially difficult to remember the source of information when we’re busy, distracted, or working on a complex task. (Sound familiar in today’s workplace?) And the more our attention is divided, the less we notice who’s responsible for the ideas that get raised. This explains why people are most likely to take credit for ideas generated immediately before their own. When it’s almost their turn, they’re maximally busy trying to come up with a good idea, so they never really pay attention to the source of the ideas that come right before their own.
To combat kleptomnesia, psychologists recommend reducing distractions and cutting down on multitasking. It can also be useful to minimize exposure to similar work. For example, comedy writer George Meyer avoided watching Seinfeld while writing for The Simpsons (16 seasons!). “I was afraid I might subconsciously borrow a joke,” Meyer told me.
Had George Harrison taken these steps, he might have avoided a serious financial loss and heartbreak. At minimum, when generating ideas, it could be wise to identify a few existing ideas that are similar, scrutinize the overlap, and give credit where it’s due. Otherwise, in Harrison’s words, “We all tend to break each other’s hearts, taking and not giving back.”
In everyday life, the most important corrective action may involve training ourselves to focus not only on what was said, but also who said it. As the psychologists Neil Macrae, Galen Bodenhausen, and Guglielmo Calvini put it, “May the source be with you.”
This article originally appeared in LinkedIn and is republished with permission. The author, Adam Grant, is a Wharton professor of management and psychology, and the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.
Wow! My appreciation of this website has just multiplied. I love the constructive thoughts you have each added to this conversation. I will definitely do some research into the groups, books and ideas you've each mentioned. And if I encourage anyone else with the ideas you've shared here, I'll be sure to give you credit ;) Thanks for my Daily Good!
I recommend one of my favorite books: "Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon. Why feel guilty? Why try not to do it? The ideas are out there. Why not use them? If you are really consciously drawing on someone else, then give credit, but, otherwise, ideas are public property!
Yes, very true. I would not call it stealing. Th idea of Karma Kitchen is very appealing to me. It gave birth to Karma Kafe in San Diego. I was volunteering in Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad. I then thought of doing this a different way in San Diego. I am very thankful to all who inspired or brought this idea to the world. Thank You all.
Thank you Deborah. I so resonate with your take. This looks like it comes from the "intellectual property" scourge that is really running amuck in the culture. Patents over herbal meds, patents over heritage seeds it goes all directions :-) We are all "guilty" as every word was created and sharing ideas is how we actually learn . It is the diverse mix that augments creativity and the very core of this article seems to hover around he corporate aspects that are in fact shrinking diversity in their need to "GROW>" and discourage "competition" etc. We are at the end of that story and there is a healthy alternative. I found it by unraveling the question of self and unity and am calling it the feminine archetype journey to balance this masculine drama we've been "living."
Disappointed in this article. I typically find such encouragement in Daily Good articles. From the title referring to stealing to the warning about breaking each others hearts, this preys on the anxieties that so many artists struggle with. It's taken a long time for me to release my fear that not all my art will be composed of completely unique ideas and images since so we share so many of our ideas and in so many ways it has "all been done before".
It's interesting to understand how the brain works in capturing and holding onto information, but tying this to the artistic process and warning artists to not integrate ideas from the world around them into their work does not feel constructive to me.
I'd be curious to explore the opportunities that lie within the research. How could we benefit from the fact that other peoples ideas stick with us? Can that help us understand our connections and maybe even use that to help people see that we're not so different from one another and that our ideas can resonate with one another.[Hide Full Comment]
On Jun 15, 2015 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:
I am so grateful to live in the Storytelling world where we borrow (not steal) each others ideas on a regular basis being as conscious as possible to give each other credit where and when credit is due. Those who are ethical are very careful to honor each other, the stories, the culture and to ask permission and then adapt and share. There are no new ideas under the sun, as the quote alluded to, there are amazing new connections that can generate amazing new advances. If we are too afraid that an idea is someone else's a creative may never create. But it is important to be ethical and honor if indeed we ARE aware an idea is someone else's. That's my take and give on this one. :)
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