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Borrowing Other People’s Memories

Have you heard someone’s fabulous story and wished it had happened to you?

Key points

  • When someone describes their unusual adventure, you sometimes make it yours.
  • Many people have confessed to borrowing another person’s experience to claim as their own.
  • Like dressing up in a nice outfit, perhaps a borrowed memory can change how we feel about ourselves.

As a teen, I would sometimes look to my church leaders for spiritual guidance. Or at least that is what I told my parents to assure them that Sunday afternoon church-sponsored meetings were molding my character in a positive direction. These gatherings were made enjoyable by our good-natured youth pastor, Bill. He could kid around and relate to us as friends. We pulled some serious juvenile pranks on Bill, but he took it all in the right spirit—most of the time. One of our escapades did take an edgy turn, and I was really sorry to have missed out on some of the fun.

My buddies and I developed an unorthodox plan to help Bill quit smoking. Sneaking one of his cigs, we removed half of the tobacco and carefully inserted a match head halfway in. After replacing the tobacco, we slyly slipped the cigarette back into the pack in his sports coat. Unfortunately, I was called home early that afternoon. The next morning at school, however, I was filled in about the hilarious outcome of our prank.

When the youth group moved outside to enjoy the nice weather, Bill casually lit up. On the second or third drag, his cigarette flashed fired right in front of his nose, putting him into a brief but memorable panic dance. Unhurt but shaken, he immediately chewed out the small group and insisted that the culprits come forward. When nobody did, he fumed that the spiritual underpinnings of our particular group had failed to develop.

My Borrowed Memory Experience

As I hung on to every detail of this story, I deeply regretted having missed out on the fun. After all, I was part of the executive planning committee for the inappropriate but priceless event. To remedy this, I made a modest alteration to the “facts” and pretended later that I had been part of this experience. In short, this story was too good not to be a part of, so I borrowed the memory and inserted myself into it.

I did feel a bit guilty about bending the truth in this way. In the years following, I occasionally wondered whether others had done something similar—pretended to have been part of an experience that they had only heard about. To my comfort, Beth Marsh, a cognitive psychologist at Duke University, confirmed this possibility decades later. At last, I was comfortable that my ethics were not completely out of line with the norm.

Survey Data on Borrowing Memories

Marsh filled me in on her preliminary survey investigation on this topic. She discovered that, on occasion, college students would hear an interesting story from others and then borrow it to tell as if it were their own experience: a goofy prank, a wild spring break party, a date gone bad, or a chance celebrity encounter.

When students were asked whether they had ever borrowed either part or all of someone else’s experience to tell as their own, over half (57 percent) had. Marsh and I then extended this survey to a larger sample at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and got similar results. Again, most (58 percent) had borrowed part or all of another’s story to convey as their own (Brown et al., 2015). Furthermore, this was rarely a solitary event. Nearly all of those who borrow memories did so more than once.

Another approach to verifying story grifting is to turn the question around by asking students whether they had ever been a victim of a story thief. That is, had they caught someone else red-handed telling one of their experiences as if it had happened to the other person? Surprisingly, over half had witnessed a friend or acquaintance doing exactly this. Needless to add, this led to some rather awkward social situations.

Why Do People Borrow Memories?

You might think that people borrow stories mainly to look cool, but you would be wrong. More often, being part of a very unusual experience is like acquiring an interesting possession—owning a unique piece of furniture or getting a special tattoo. Perhaps the acquired story has transformative powers, just like your first zipline experience can change the way you feel about yourself.

Another reason why people borrow memories is that conversation and social connection are made easier. More specifically, when the group discussion turns to a particular topic, tossing in a related story that you heard about but that happened to somebody else may feel stilted. However, telling the experience as if it were your own makes it come alive.

In case you were wondering, memories aren’t borrowed just by college students. A community sample (average age of 40) that we surveyed later revealed that one-third confessed to occasionally borrowing somebody else’s memory and catching somebody else embezzling their own life events (Brown et al., 2020). Although this incidence was lower than among students, it was still rather impressive.

The Problem With Borrowing a Memory: Believing It Is Actually Yours

The good news from this research is that if you borrow other’s experiences, you are completely normal and in good company. However, there is a downside. If you repeatedly tell someone else’s story as your own, you may start to believe that it really did happen to you. Over a third of those in our survey said that they were occasionally unsure whether an experience had actually happened to them or to somebody else. Most ended up in disputes with others about this ambiguity. Sheen, Kemp, and Rubin (2001) found something similar in their research on twins. Over half of the twin sets in their study confirmed the existence of disputed memories or ones where both firmly believed that a particular experience belonged to them and not their sibling.

Resolving the Memory Standoff

If you find yourself caught in a contentious disagreement over memory ownership, I suggest that you find a creative way to share the experience. Perhaps your custody battle over the anecdote makes an interesting story in and of itself. Most likely, you are butting heads with a good friend or relative because these are people who are most likely to have experiences that overlap with yours. But keep in mind that these relationships can be the most important ones to you and need to be preserved.

As a closing piece of advice, do not try the matchhead-in-the-cigarette trick. Although I kept my unearned memory, my relationship with Bill went south. He soon left the church and is now selling used cars.


Brown, A. S., Croft Caderao, K., Fields, L. M., & Marsh, E. J. (2015). Borrowing personal memories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 471-477.

Brown, A. S., Fields, L. M., Croft Caderao, K., Chmielewski, M., Denman, D., &Marsh, E. J. (2020). Autobiographical editing: Rewriting our personal past. In B. L. Schwartz & A. M. Cleary (Eds.), Quirks of memory: The study of odd phenomena in memory. NY: Routledge.

Sheen, M., Kemp, S., & Rubin, D. C. (2001). Twins dispute memory ownership: A new false memory phenomenon. Memory & Cognition, 29, 779-788.

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