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Bombers and Plagiarism: How Memory Misattributions can get us in Trouble


On April 19 of 1995, 168 people lost their lives in one of the most devastating cases of domestic terrorism on US soil. Although many remember Timothy McVeigh as the primary culprit of this attack, in the days shortly after the attack, a nationwide hunt for an accomplice was underway, based on the recollections of an employee at the garage where McVeigh had rented the van used in the attack. A mug shot of the suspect was widely circulated and rumors about accomplices abounded. However, after an extensive investigation, no such suspect was identified and McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who provided material support, were the only two people held responsible for the bombing. To this date, many a conspiracy theory still suggest a second bomber was involved, even if the authorities declared the case to be closed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_City_bombing_conspiracy_theories). Although many cases of mistaken eyewitness testimony occur (Zaragoza & Lane, 1994), with many innocent people sentenced to jail (https://www.innocenceproject.org/) it is less common for a witness to remember a suspect who never existed. So, where did John Doe 2 come from? And how was he implicated in – and later cleared of – any wrong-doing?

The search for John Doe 2 began when an employee of the rental company remembered two men – one fitting the description of Timothy McVeigh – renting the van used in the bombing. Subsequent investigations, as reported in Schacter (2001), revealed that the employee made a very simple and common memory error: He remembered two men from the day before McVeigh rented the van and described them to the investigators. Furthermore, one of the two men – who were completely unrelated to the bombing – bore a vague resemblance to McVeigh. So, a simple mistake in remembering when and who was involved in a transaction led to an extensive (and expensive) investigation. Although the mistake in this case could have had much more dramatic consequences, such memory misattributions are quite common. We often forget who told us something, whether we read something in a newspaper or saw it in a television program, or in what context we learned something.


In order to understand how such memory errors occur, let’s step back and think about what it means to remember. We often think of remembering something as just that – remembering an event, the answer to an exam question, or an important phone number or appointment. Of course, these are all important functions of memory, and, often, we are perfectly able to remember these things when needed. However, whenever we encode information into memory – encoding refers to the process by which we get information “into” our memory stores – we also encode peripheral details and additional information. So, for example, when we hear a news story on the radio, we don’t encode only the piece of information but also where we heard it (on the radio), the voice of the speaker (male or female, for example), and possibly even irrelevant information such as the smell of cinnamon rolls in the oven while the radio was on. All of this additional information is often referred to as contextual information – if you have ever walked from one room to another and forgotten why you got up in the first place, you know how this works… Because sometimes the only way to remember what you were doing, is to go back to the place you came from, and, bingo, the context in which you were in helps you remember what you were thinking (maybe you were on your way to get one of those cinnamon rolls…). A specific type of context information is source information (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993), otherwise known as remembering the actual source of information, such as who told you something, where you learned it, and so on. So, what does all this have to do with John Doe 2?

The rental company employee did remember accurately that two men came into the store. What he misremembered was the day – in other words, he misattributed the temporal details (when) to the event itself (someone renting the van used in the bombing). This type of memory error – called a misattribution error – occurs when elements of a memory, such as the who, when, or where, are misremembered. Thus, specific details about a memory can be correct although other details can be wrong. One particular type of misattribution error – a binding error – occurs when details from different memories are incorrectly associated. So, someone might remember that the story they heard on the radio was something they read online or vice versa. In the majority of cases, such errors might be frustrating at worst: It is really hard to locate an interesting story if you’re looking in the wrong place! But in some cases, as in the case of John Doe 2, errors in the temporal details of an event can have much more dramatic consequences.


Now, clearly, it is not every day (fortunately) that someone needs to remember details about a potential bomber or criminal and most memory misattributions can be harmless – when you think your sister told you something but instead it was your mother, in most cases, this is just awkward and sometimes amusing. A more serious consequence of memory misattribution – that is relevant to students and scholars at all stages of their career – is what researchers refer to as “cryptomnesia” (Brown & Halliday, 1991): The inadvertent “stealing” of someone else’s ideas and claiming them as your own. Unfortunately, cryptomnesia can be indistinguishable from plagiarism in many cases because both involve incorrectly or not attributing an idea to the proper source. So, the next time you are reading a very interesting paper, or discussing ideas with peers, make sure you write down whose ideas were whose (in your own words, of course!).


Brown, A. S. & Halliday, H. E. (1991). Cryptomnesia and source memory difficulties. American Journal of Psychology104, 475–490.

Johnson, M. K., Hashtroudi, S., & Lindsay, S. D. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3–28.

Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Zaragoza, M. S. & Lane, S. M. (1994). Sources misattributions and suggestibility of eyewitness testimony. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 934–945.


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