Happy People Plagiarize and Fake Stuff More

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In Time’s higher education supplement, Annabel Symington recently wrote about politicians who shock their respective nations by getting caught plagiarizing their PhD theses. Earlier this year, Germany’s education and research minister resigned after her thesis, “Person and Conscience: Studies on the Conditions, Need and Requirements of Today’s Consciences,” was discovered to be choc-a-block with uncited passages of other people’s work. Pakistan’s President Zardari may have invented the university he went to.

According to a new study, these fakers may just be happier than the rest of us honest folk. The journal Motivation and Emotion recently published work by Amanda C. Gingerich from Indiana’s Butler University and Chad S. Dodson from the University of Virginia, suggesting that happy people plagiarize and sad people don’t.

The type of plagiarism Gingerich and Dodson were studying wasn’t the deliberate kind, where you turn in a paper full of Wikipedia’s insights on Moby Dick verbatim. Instead, they were interested in accidental plagiarism, or cryptomnesia, where you read or hear something and later believe that you made it up yourself. When George Harrison was accused of plagiarizing the tune for “My Sweet Lord” from Ronald Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” Harrison said he knew he had heard Mack’s song, but that he never meant to copy it. The researchers write: “Harrison’s mistake may have been an instance of cryptomnesia, a type of memory illusion in which individuals mistakenly trust that they have generated a new idea when, in reality, they have merely accessed a previously experienced idea and inadvertently claimed it as their own.”

To test how mood might affect a person’s ability to remember whether an idea was their own or someone else’s, Gingerich and Dodson put together an experiment involving 21 men, 29 women, and a computer game much like Boggle.

First, they divided the subjects into two groups, and primed both of them with a writing activity: the “happy” group was asked to write about a positive personal experience they’d had, and the “sad” group was asked to write about a sad personal experience.

Then the subjects played the game. You all know Boggle, yes? With the shakey thing and the cubes with letters on them, and you shake it up and when the letters fall into place you have two minutes to write down all the words you can make with adjoining letters? This game was essentially like that, but instead of writing down as many words as they could think of, subjects were asked to write down one word, then let their “partner”—the computer—generate three. The subjects played 24 rounds in total, but halfway through, they spent another few minutes writing their happy or sad stories, so that the moods established at the beginning would be sustained.

Then, after a break long enough to let their memories dim a little, the subjects were shown each puzzle again and asked to recall the words that they themselves had come up with earlier. They filled out a questionnaire reporting on their mood during the experiment.

Gingerich and Dodson found that the “sad” people were less likely than the “happy” people to misremember a computer-generated response as their own. If they had been writing essays, the “sad” people would have cited their sources more accurately than the “happy” people.

Previous work in the field has suggested that sad and happy moods change the way people think. The researchers cite earlier studies showing that “when individuals are in a happy mood they tend to process information more globally or relationally… and when they are in a sad mood, they tend to process information in a more local or item-specific manner.” On the Boggle task, this means “sad” people pay greater attention to the nitty-gritty of whose answers are whose, while the happy people are cheerfully noticing “our” answers, and also, presumably, humming “He’s So Fine” while chasing butterflies across their computer screens.

It seems like there’s good news for teachers here—all you have to do to reduce plagiarism is make your students crazy miserable. In general, however, it seems as though the effects of sad mood cut both ways: they make you more careful, but less creative. Feeling sad makes people more systematic, which can lead to fewer errors. But feeling happy makes people feel safer, which allows them to play with new ideas and come up with more inventive ways of solving problems.


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