Story envy: When we borrow other people’s personal anecdotes

In the study, men admitted “borrowing” other people’s stories more than women

Admit it, have you ever told a cracking story to your friends but failed to include the crucial (but perhaps boring) caveat that the amusing events actually happened to someone else? A new survey of hundreds of US undergrads finds that borrowing personal memories in this way is common place.

Alan Brown and his colleagues found that nearly half of the 447 undergrads they sampled admitted to having told someone else’s personal anecdote in its entirety as their own, and most of them said they’d done it more than once. This figure rose to nearly 60 per cent if you include the borrowing of story details rather than a complete tale. What’s more, over half the sample also said they’d had the experience of someone else stealing their stories.

The most common reason the students gave for borrowing another person’s story was because they wanted it to be a part of their identity and their past. Other reasons, from most to least commonly cited, included: to make the story have more impact (explaining that it was someone else’s story was seen as a distracting detail), for convenience, and for status enhancement.

Why is story borrowing so common? One possibility is that after doing it once, we forget the original source. With re-tellings, the original story becomes tailored to our own identity and we begin to believe it’s our own. Backing this up, around 30 per cent of the sample admitted to telling a story and only later realising they had borrowed it from another person. Also, more than half the sample said they’d had arguments with other people about ownership of a story, suggesting confusion of story origins is a familiar occurrence.

A further detail: men more often admitted to borrowing other people’s stories, or details from them, and said they were involved in more disputes over story ownership. Men also cited status enhancement as a motive more often than women.

The researchers said their research had wider implications for the study of memory and that “by understanding the ways in which we tinker with our autobiographical records, we may gain insights into how we inadvertently alter our life stories.”


Brown, A., Croft Caderao, K., Fields, L., & Marsh, E. (2015). Borrowing Personal Memories Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3130

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.