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The Biggest Reason We Steal Other People’s Ideas

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Kleptomnesia happens due to a pragmatic, but peculiar, feature of how human memory is wired

LinkedIn Influencer Adam Grant originally published this post on LinkedIn. Follow Adam on LinkedIn.

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.”

Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Sign up for his free newsletter at www.giveandtake.com.

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Books To Look Out for This Fall

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New releases from Peter Thiel, Linda Rottenberg and more

LinkedIn Influencer Adam Grant published this post originally on LinkedIn. Follow Adam on LinkedIn.

My favorite part of being an author is writing. A close second is finding new books in my mailbox. This fall, there’s an unusually exciting crop of big idea and business books about human behavior, innovation and entrepreneurship, and the fundamental questions of success, meaning, and happiness in work and life. Here are the 14 forthcoming and just-released books to check out:

1. Me, Myself, and Us by Brian Little (October 14)

I’ve never read a book that revealed so much about my own personality, let alone the peculiar habits of my friends, coworkers, and family members. With extraordinary wit and wisdom, Little— the winner of Canada’s highest award for university teaching and one of Harvard’s favorite professors—offers startling insights about our trivial pursuits and magnificent obsessions.

2. Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman (October 14)

If you believe in the value of experience, prepare to have your worldview turned upside-down. Wiseman masterfully shows why novices can outdo veterans, expertise blinds us to fresh ideas, and we’re all missing out on the brilliance of the newbies around us.

3. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (October 7)

The author who brought us the epic biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin is back. It’s the saga of Silicon Valley as we’ve never seen it before: a behind-the-scenes journey with the pioneers who invented the computer, the Internet, and the digital revolution.

4. Crazy is a Compliment by Linda Rottenberg (October 7)

Rottenberg offers a treasure trove of ideas to jumpstart new entrepreneurs and accelerate the success of startups. She has guided many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, and this book is full of tips for fueling innovation in companies, nonprofits, governments, and schools.

5. The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener(September 25)

At long last, here’s a book on why happiness can make us sad, mindfulness might be overrated, and discomfort sets the stage for comfort. This pair of psychologists offers a provocative, evidence-based case for a balanced life. If you don’t read it, you should feel guilty—and it turns out that will be good for you.

6. A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (September 23)

In their fourth book together, this Pulitzer Prize-winning married couple examines how regular people make a difference. From preventing disease and fixing education, to evaluating global aid and local charity, to fighting violence, the combination of inspiring examples, cutting-edge science, and practical recommendations is going to change how we think about changing the world.

7. How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (September 23)

How did Google grow from a disruptive search engine into the world’s most valuable company? Two leaders share lessons from the inside out on strategy, decision-making, innovation, and culture.

8. Zero to One by Peter Thiel (September 16)

Thiel argues that the secret to progress is not competition, but monopoly. Drawing on his experience as cofounder of PayPal and Palantir, and an early investor in companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yelp, he offers fascinating ideas about how to shift from copying something old to creating something new.

9. Hello, My Name is Awesome by Alexandra Watkins (September 15)

How do you find the right name for your brand or your company? This is what Watkins does for a living—her company is responsible for renaming a wedding brunch service Bloody Married and a frozen yogurt franchise Spoon Me—and her clever examples and advice will spare us all from putting the wrong foot forward.

10. The Small Big by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Steve Martin(September 9)

If you’ve ever struggled to change the beliefs or behaviors of other people, there’s hope. The world’s leading experts on persuasion offer the best of science and practical insights about influence.

11. Smartcuts by Shane Snow (September 9)

This book solves a major mystery, illuminating how visionaries and pioneers find faster ways to achieve their goals. With spellbinding stories and relevant research, Snow has delivered one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking books of the year.

12. Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz (August 19)

According to this former Yale professor, elite colleges aren’t teaching students how to think. Deresiewiczproposes to reinvent higher education so that students develop strong values and find meaningful definitions of success.

13. Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk (August 5)

We think bold new ideas come from individuals and teams, but the heart of creativity lies in dynamic duos. Shenk examines the chemistry behind the imaginative pairs who spawned the Beatles, Apple, South Park, and the civil rights movement. Learn about the surprising benefits of conflict and power imbalances—and how to find the right partner and build trust.

14. Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green (August 4)

Great education is the foundation of a flourishing society, and it depends on great teachers. Green, a leading education journalist, offers strong evidence and compelling cases to illuminate what it takes to get children to pay attention, sharpen their reasoning, and contribute to insightful discussions.

And if you’re still searching for more, here are the other new releases that I’m looking forward to reading:

Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Sign up for his free newsletter at www.giveandtake.com

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