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The science of psych

The Copycat Unconscious

Cyberdaters can be so lazy!

Considering how lazy many e-daters are, and how clever many other e-daters are, it should come as no surprise that plagiarism runs rampant in the online dating world. On Friday the Wall Street Journal reported on copycat personal profiles, mentioning that in one survey 9% of respondents admitted to lifting material from someone else, and that lines from some sources appear on dozens of people's profile pages. In some cases people cop to lack of imagination, but I suspect in others people subconsciously appropriate the sentiments behind the words so as to justify their claims of authorship. For example, Jennifer Saranow writes, "Without thinking twice, Mr. Khalfa says, he copied Mr. Matteo's prose because it also fit him to a tee." Hey, I probably would have written that if given the chance, so why shouldn't I use it as my own?

Jorge Louis Borges takes this deeper form of emulation to its absurd extreme in his 1939 short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," a literary critique of the non-existent Menard. Borges had me at the conceit of a book review of an imaginary work, but the further conceit is quite inventive: Menard became fluid in the ideas and language of Cervantes, the original author of Don Quixote, so that he could rewrite it in his own words, and have those words be the exact same ones that Cervantes used--"to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard."

Not an easy task, to reverse-engineer and reassemble a masterpiece with such authenticity: "He dedicated his scruples and his sleepless nights to repeating an already extant book in an alien tongue. He multiplied draft upon draft, revised tenaciously and tore up thousands of manuscript pages." In the end, Menard could only complete two chapters. But that's not the punchline. Because of the different contexts in which the pieces were written, "Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer."

Menard and the e-daters benefit from several psychological mechanisms that help them cheat at feeling authentic while cribbing, according to studies examining cryptomnesia, or inadvertent plagiarism. First of all there's subliminal priming. In a classic 1931 experiment by Norman Maier, the solution to a puzzle was to use a dangling cord as a pendulum; when the experimenter subtly brushed against the cord and made it sway, subjects quickly solved the puzzle but didn't acknowledge the role of the hint when asked to explain their insight. There's also our overly inclusive sense of authorship. As Jesse Preston and Daniel Wegner wrote in a paper last year titled "The Eureka Error" (pdf), "Rather than picking a few...thoughts to feel that one personally willed, it might be easier to feel a sense of responsibility connected to all thoughts that pass through one's consciousness."

Now, I try to be a better writer by reading a lot and incorporating bits of things I like--but I aim to adopt (and adapt) modes of thought, not wordings. (Like how Hunter S. Thompson retyped Hemingway novels to understand his craft.) So if I find an engaging turn of phrase, I deconstruct it so as to figure out the line of logic and association behind it. I do the same with jokes. Sounds pretty unfunny, and perhaps futile, but it's a habit. And to me, the greatest innovations, insights, one-liners, etc., are the ones I can't see myself coming up with, even after studying them. Take, for example, this truly simple and truly underrated, if truly commonplace, joke: "No, the other left." There is a leap there that cannot be computed.

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I suspect a weak sense of self aids in assuming another's identity, online or otherwise. In response to the WSJ article, one Gawker commenter pointed to these pics (also see above). A woman on LiveJournal had reproduced several unique self-portraits by another LJ user. Maybe she liked the target's style and wanted to be like her. But I can also imagine the mimic, with little sweat and much self-delusion, saying, "That Pocahontas get-up? That is so ME, TOO. Even the lines on the feather, that's the PERFECT way to do it, and JUST how I would have done it." Blindsight is 20/20.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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