Misattribution occurs when you remember something correctly for the most part, but some detail, such as time or place or the person involved, isn't right.
It also refers to when you think your thought or idea is original, but you actually have read or heard about it before but forgotten you did. A good example of misattribution is a case of unintentional plagiarism, in which a writer uses as his or her own information he or she read somewhere else.
Misattribution in memory is the fourth normal age-related memory problem outlined in a 2021 Harvard Health Publishing article and based on the book "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers" by Daniel Schacter.
As with other kinds of memory lapses, misattribution becomes more common with age. We tend to absorb fewer details because of difficulty in concentration and with processing the information rapidly.
Our memory simply doesn’t have the strength to store a new memory with complete accuracy.
So we remember general aspects of what happened and some of the details, depending on how relevant they were, a process called memory binding. Typically, it is the source of misattribution.
For example, when you leave home and question whether you turned off the coffee pot. Then, you think, yes you did. But, is that a memory from yesterday or today? This can be a misattribution error — our brain didn’t sufficiently link the coffee pot and turning it off together.
Another familiar example of misattribution is déjà vu, the sensation that you have already experienced something even though you haven’t. Experts believe this phenomenon most likely relates to memory in that you might have participated in an event previously, but you just can’t remember it.
The déjà vu sensation also commonly happens before a focal seizure, with symptoms of twitching, hallucinations, sensory disruptions, repeated involuntary movements and a rush of unexplainable emotion. Should someone experience these symptoms or regularly have déjà vu, he or she should consult with a health care provider to rule out any underlying causes.
Déjà vu can also be a symptom of dementia as someone with cognitive decline may create false recollections in response to seemingly repeated experiences.
Schacter writes in his book that what helps prevent us from making too many misattribution errors is something he calls distinctiveness heuristic. If a distinctive event happened, we reason we’d have a good memory of it. Schacter advises to think carefully about memories we know are true and try to remember the specifics when possible.
“We often need to sort out ambiguous signals, such a feelings of familiarity or fleeting images, that may originate in specific past experiences, or arise from subtle influences in the present. Relying on judgment and reasoning to come up with plausible attributions, we sometimes go astray,” he wrote.