The Psychology of Plagiarism

When I was at university, a friend of mine was taking a course which I had taken the semester before – the Bible as Literature or Ancient Judaism, I can’t exactly remember  – and, because he tended to be lazy, he one day told me that he hadn’t started writing a paper that was due the next day and, consequently, would almost certainly fail the class. He showed me the assignment, a page long description of some obscure theory of interpretation which he was supposed to apply to some obscure primary text and the technical requirements for the paper itself, and I realized that the assignment was unchanged from the previous semester and that, somewhere in my files, I had a paper that would meet his assignment’s exact demands. I cannot recall if initially it was his idea or mine – nor do I suppose that it matters since ultimately my decisions and their consequences are my own – but, before long, I had committed to rewriting the paper (and perhaps getting a better grade) and allowing my friend to submit it as his own – I had decided to cheat.

The episode remains among the few knowingly wrong actions I have taken, wrong in my eyes then and now, distinguishing itself from those actions I later realized to be wrong or those actions that are only wrong in the eyes of others. And so, I return, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” into that moment, in which, despite being able to recall with unreal vividness the scents in the dormitory air, the temperature of the room, the texture of my desk, and the sounds of my keyboard, I can only say that I do not know why. Our wrong and unequalizable commerce concluded karmically; the paper received an A and was submitted by the professor for a departmental award and won and my friend was appointed a student fellow and I was left to adjust to a life lived with a humble measure of unsoftenable contrition.

Whatever my answers will be, whenever they come, and I’m beginning to suspect they never will, I would like to imagine that they will be in someway unique, my experience with plagiarism not being the typical plagiarist nor the typical unknowing plagiarized, but the knowing plagiarized. I would like to imagine that I am the sole or rare occupant of some special category – and perhaps I am – and that within me there is no kinship shared with the plagiarist, or the plagiarists we lately have begun to discover on YouTube, but I know too well that atypicality is a myth like any other, and that, as with all things, better than conviction, belief, or moral philosophies, there is only understanding. I certainly cannot thoroughly understand the cases of the brothers Lawley, both plagiarists, arrogant, and dishonorable human beings, or Ray Comfort, a disturbing and disgraceful human being, and I have no particular desire to condemn them in more rigorous terms than these; without pardoning them, I can, perhaps, contribute to the greater challenge of understanding them.

On a fairly basic level, plagiarism is simply an effort to transform one’s world, like any other effort, but one that is maladaptive, destructive, and unhealthy; like any other effort, plagiarism rests upon skill, the exercise of which can be perfected beyond detection and the perfection of which can be a lifelong exercise. Far from being its intrinsic opposite, the rigors of plagiarism characteristically parallel the rigors of actual academics and it is a fair criticism of the Western academic tradition that the two are often rewarded in kind and the plagiarist learns to be a better plagiarist. Were process and results not conflated for students at such a young age, I suspect that there would be less plagiarism. To be clear, of three students, one who tries his hardest and gets a C, one who tries, but not his hardest, and gets a B, and one who cheats and gets an A, I believe we are sending three wrong messages.

On this fairly basic level, therefore, plagiarism is symptomatic of miseducation – distinct from poor education which suggests an absence of skill – and we should be able to detect and measure similarly concomitant evidences of the plagiarist’s dysfunction. Education is a process in which the average person takes years to learn a surprisingly vast and intricate body of skills to a degree of comfortable automatization; the miseducated – particularly those who have been homeschooled for non-academic reasons or whose higher education is achieved in nontraditional or unaccredited institutions – will exhibit a subtly askew familiarity with the practices and purposes of academics. They will, for example, be aware of the illustrative power of vivid metaphor, particularly in supporting argumentation, but not be sufficiently practiced to perfectly implement metaphor with precision, resulting in oddly clumsy metaphor and hypothetical that tend to bog down an argument rather than build it up.Or, they will be aware that mastery of the English language involves the use of uncommon tenses and moods, such as the future subjunctive, preserved in such phrases as ‘far be it for me,’ but will not understand its usage and so, over use it and misuse it, affecting the legalistic and philosophic connotations of the future subjunction when the present declarative is more than sufficient. Or, they will use words not quite correctly, sometimes combining two words into one, their word recall being inexperienced, or they will misapply affixes to words as they move a root between different parts of speech, or they will not quite know what belongs on the table of contents, or how or how or why to use an epigram. These are all subtle clues, which we better detect with experience, but I see in the works of the brothers Lawley and Mr. Comfort and a surprising number of YouTubers: VenomFangX, npage85, NephilimFree, and JezuzFreek and others, who may seem surprisingly clever on their feet, who I dare not mention here.

It’s worth pointing out that homeschooling under certain circumstances and nontraditional or unaccredited institutions of higher education also do not provide the learner with sufficient opportunities for normal socialization and opportunities for practicum experiences, both surprisingly unappreciated aspects of the formal education process – but, that is part of a larger debate into which one cannot wade briefly.

On a more basic level, however, plagiarism needs to be understood as voluntary embracing of the unreal, a knowing inhabitation of fantasy. On this most basic level, the human psyche seems to grow, achieve its full functioning, and develop along ordinary lines when it is nurtured and safe from birth – a fairly straightforward axiom that does not prohibit good people to come from bad homes, but certainly explains why it is that the single greatest predictor of lifelong success in virtually all measurable categories of human activity and being is supportive parenting. Psychological health is about strong and healthy functioning, goal-setting and process-building, the ability to prioritize and act on priorities, strong adaptive power, positive decision-making, positive and realistic thinking, fluidity between the long and short terms, self-awareness, confidence, relationships, and security – far too complex a thing to fully explicate here. But, for these limited purposes, the psychologically healthy will tend towards the real, knowing that the most rewarding and meaningful relationships, for example, are predicated upon truth, the true sharing of experiences, the sharing of actual interests. Relationships can, of course, be predicated upon the unreal and in some measures, this may seem like an equivalent to those relationships predicated upon the real – many wives die believing in the fidelity of their actually adulterous husbands and such husbands live knowing that, although they are loved, it is actually a baseless love, and that they are therefore unworthy of love. No one who is psychologically healthy is willing to be unworthy of love; the well-parented are not taught this as infants and tend away from it in all that they do.

In contrast, plagiarism becomes about accepting false praise, which is to say, unearned praise, and the quiet knowing that one is unworthy of praise – there is a gamble that plagiarists undertake, that they can outrun that quiet knowing, or suppress the real unworthiness and live instead in the light of false praise. Thus, the plagiarist prefers the unreal to the real.

Plagiarism is morally wrong and it cannot serve a righteous purpose, but the larger point is, I think, whether through miseducation or misparenting, or both, the plagiarist persists in a system of the unreal which cannot precipitate real results and it is a system in which the plagiarist places himself to suffer as its first and worst victim.

23 thoughts on “The Psychology of Plagiarism”

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