Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard, has a word for what happend on Monday night in Cleveland when Melania Trump spoke of her husband, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and how her Slovenian childhood upbringing shaped her value system.
Kleptomnesia. Yes, a word for exactly these situations. In a 2013 interview, writer Adam Grant hat-tips Gilbert, arguing that unintentional plagiarism is far more common — and dangerous — than outright plagiarism. The scariest part is that you don’t even know you’re doing it.
But back to the stage on Monday night. Here’s Mrs. Trump:
My parents impressed on me the values: that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect. They taught me to show the values and morals in my daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son.
And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. [Cheering] Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Eagle-eyed Internet sleuth Jarrett Hill felt a surge of deja vu, though. He heard the words of Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention:
Yep, that’s an almost a word-for-word transcription of Michelle Obama’s speech about her husband, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two wives speaking:
In overlay, there’s almost an eerie echo, removing any doubt that the Trump campaign’s speechwriters found a bit more than inspiration from previous speeches and Melania’s life — even though Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser, says otherwise:
“In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
In other words, the team of writers Melania worked with are implying any similarities between her speech and the First Lady’s was accidental. Which raises the question: Is accidental plagiarism a thing?
First, and foremost, a guide to plagiarism. Most schools of thought on this agree on one thing: accidental or not, plagiarism — the copying of words and/or ideas — is not cool. You special snowflake, you are the sole owner of the random thoughts that spew from your head, the words that you speak and write, the ideas that you claim and publish under your name uniquely from others. Just because you might not have known that snippet of genius was not yours doesn’t make you innocent of plagiarism.
This brings us to the psychological issue at hand — is it possible for a person to unintentionally copy something? Turns out, probably not.
A study from 1989 establishes the fact that we might subconsciously pocket away thoughts, then dig them up at a later time, pat ourselves on the back for our enormous genius, and claim them as ours when they’re not. In the experiment, groups of four were asked to brainstorm ideas about sports, musical instruments, clothes, or four-legged animals (quite the topic menagerie). They then were asked to individually list which ideas were their own. The result: 75 percent of participants claimed the ideas they came up with their group were actually theirs. And worse, when asked to come up with four more ideas for these topics, 71 percent took a fellow member’s idea and claimed it as their own. In both these instances, it’s safe to assume that the participants had no ill intent, no evil grand plan to bring down their fellow participants in this scheme: it was all unintentional.
That’s troubling news for anyone who works in today’s dominant idea economy, one that places values on brainstorming, creativity, and imagination. How many of your ideas are actually your own? Research — and now even real life — seem to indicate that unfortunately, your ideas are more often not your own, just great ideas you’ve absorbed via some cranial osmosis.
Some more recent research points to our constant exposure to technology and social media as debilitating to not only our idea-making process but our minds hiding away thoughts into the depths of our brain and conveniently popping ‘em up when a timely topic comes around. Psychologists prefer to call it “crymptomnesia” instead, trying to differentiate it from the kleptomania-inspired moniker the concept has. There seems to be a single flicker of hope, though. Research seems to show that being in a “sad mood” helps reduce the likelihood you accidentally plagiarize.
It’s fair to say that psychologists haven’t exactly figured out a way around kleptomnesia, and maybe Melania Trump’s speech might instigate research into this fuzzy area. Until then, we have to grapple with whether she also plagiarized with a Rickroll — or whether it was just a nudge to never give up on great ideas, whether or not they’re yours for the taking.