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6 Ways to Stop People Who Steal Your Ideas

Studies on plagiarism suggest ways to understand and overcome the idea thief.

Key points

  • In the phenomenon known as "cryptomnesia," people mistakenly forget whose idea was whose, possibly leading them to steal your work.
  • Research suggests that cryptomnesia does occur, but actual plagiarism is a rarity.
  • A new study on how to handle those who claim your ideas as their own suggests six steps to get credit where credit is due.

When you think of plagiarism, you probably immediately envision a high-school or college student whose term paper turns out to be taken entirely off the Internet or possibly another student. Claiming someone else’s work as your own is sadly not restricted to academic situations. According to a 2016 study by Plymouth University’s Timothy Hollins and colleagues, “There is abundant psychological evidence that people do indeed misremember other people’s ideas as their own” (p. 884).

Apparently, life is full of situations in which people claim credit for ideas that they’ve stolen from someone else. Maybe this has happened to you. Perhaps you were chatting with a friend or colleague suggesting a new approach to figuring out a persistent problem that has plagued your group. Imagine that this is a work situation, and your idea will not only solve the problem but also save a considerable amount of money. Much to your surprise and unhappiness, this colleague later pitches your idea as their own. Never is your name mentioned in association with this brilliant insight.

What Is Cryptomnesia and How Does It Work?

This plagiarism of your idea may not actually have been intentional on the part of your colleague. Collins and his coworkers describe the phenomenon of cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism. Although misremembering the source of an idea could be a completely innocent case stemming from memory failure, there might be another explanation. Previous work that the British researchers cite (Macrae et al., 1999) claims that people “have a self-serving bias to steal ideas,” which they refer to as “kleptomnesia.” However, Collins et al. suspect that the unwitting plagiarist has a case of simple memory failure.

If people fall prey to cryptomnesia for no particularly nefarious reason, the question now shifts to asking how this happens and why it is so common. In analyzing previous research, the Plymouth U. investigators pose two alternative explanations.

In the “it had to be you” effect, people attribute ideas that aren’t very good to someone else. In the “self-generation” effect, people are more likely to remember what they say versus what others say. Neither of these alternatives, Hollins et al. argue, support the idea that we are “self-serving intellectual magpies” (p. 886). What if, the U.K. team wonders, people are more likely to give than to take when it comes to misremembering the source of an idea. There is some previous evidence to support this altruistic interpretation.

Testing the Non–Self-Serving Bias Effect

If it’s true that people just fail to detect the origin of their own and others’ ideas, then there should be a way to get to the source of the source memory defect. One important factor, the Plymouth U. researchers suggest, as an influence on the process is the similarity that partners in a cryptomnesia task have toward each other. As shown in previous work, people are more likely to unconsciously plagiarize when they perceive themselves as similar to the other person, especially if the person is there at the time of the memory test. In other words, you become confused as to who said what in cases in which you feel something akin to that other individual.

Across a series of four experiments, Collins and his collaborators compared people’s memory for the words they generated in response to a prompt to come up with words belonging to a set of categories such as fruit, animals, furniture, and articles of clothing. The participants worked together in dyads based on gender (same vs. other) and then tried to recall as many of their own and their partner’s words. In one condition, the partner was present at recall, and in the other, the partner was absent.

The findings across these experiments supported the idea that people are more likely to engage in cryptomnesia when the partner isn’t there at the time of recall. This result suggests an out-of-sight-out-of-mind effect. It’s more difficult to put the source together with the idea if you’re you can’t see the person who generated the idea. On the other hand, and confirming what the authors thought might happen, participants did show a tendency to give more than they received in attributing their own ideas to someone else.

There’s some consolation in this last finding. Perhaps, as the authors conclude “we are likely to be attributing our own ideas to [others]" rather "than claiming their ideas as our own…as children we are taught that giving is better than receiving” (p. 901).

Maybe, then, most people really aren’t plagiarists of the ideas offered by others. If the Plymouth U. findings imply that people’s memory for ideas is just plain bad, this might mean that the plagiarist is the exception rather than the rule.

Taking the Plagiarist Head On

If it’s true that you are likely to have someone give you credit for their own ideas rather than vice versa, the fact remains that the plagiarist's behavior is annoying and potentially damaging to your own chances for success in areas where ideas count. The U.K. research implies that when the plagiarist strikes, you can be quite sure that they are doing so deliberately rather than as the result of sloppy memory.

As a consequence, you may be better off turning to some of the resources out there to help people manage the idea-stealing colleague or friend. A newly published article by University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s George Banks and colleagues (2022) applies the set of ethical guidelines published by the American Psychological Association (APA) to situations that industrial-organizational psychologists might encounter in various work settings. Their analyses can give you some useful concepts to adapt to your own situation as you ponder your next steps.

The decision framework that Banks et al. set forth involves the following six steps:

  1. Recognize the ethical issue.
  2. Gather information.
  3. Identify those who stand to benefit.
  4. Identify alternative actions.
  5. Compare alternative actions.
  6. Implement action(s) and monitor outcomes.

As an example, the UNC Charlotte researchers pose a scenario in which a doctoral student completes a significant amount of work for a research publication, only to be told by the senior author (an assistant professor) that her contribution wasn’t sufficient to qualify her for inclusion on the author team. Instead, the assistant professor turned to a senior professor whom he asked to be a co-author, apparently in an effort to curry favor.

The decision process that Banks and his coauthors outline could provide guidance to the doctoral student as she ponders her next steps. Apart from the specifics of the APA Ethical Code that would apply to authorship, the bottom line is that since “assignment of credit for intellectual contributions is something that spans the nature of all nature of work…transparency and openness of communication is needed” (p. 228).

By going through steps one through six above, you similarly could arrive at a strategy the next time something like this happens to you. Although your temptation might be to accuse the person right away and angrily demand credit, it’s important to go through the preliminary steps of analyzing the situation in as objective a manner as possible. Consulting with a neutral third party might also be advisable before you rush into a confrontation that could damage your career or friendships even more than the potential plagiarism.

To sum up, it’s comforting to think that you’re more likely to be the donor of a good idea rather than the target of an innocent memory slip. However, when you indeed have a valid reason to believe that someone is unfairly taking credit for your work, the Banks et al. study provides you with a set of useful, actionable steps to set things right.

References

Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Calvini, G. (1999). Contexts of cryptomnesia: May the source be with you. Social Cognition, 17, 273–297. doi:10.1521/soco.1999.17.3.2

Hollins, T. J., Lange, N., Dennis, I., & Longmore, C. A. (2016). Social influences on unconscious plagiarism and anti-plagiarism. Memory, 24(7), 884–902. https://doi-org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1080/09658211.2015.1059857

Banks, GC., Knapp, DJ., Lin, L., Sanders, CS., and Grand, JA. (2022). Ethical decision making in the 21st century: A useful framework for industrial-organizational psychologists. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 15, 220–235. https://doi.org/10.1017/iop.2021.143

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