Jonah Lehrer had it all. He was a respected journalist, thought leader and bestselling author, with gigs at Wired and the New Yorker. And he’s only 31.So why would he risk it all for something as grievous as plagiarism?
A few months ago he admitted to self-plagiarizing, and David Remnick over at the New Yorker forgave him, promising readers it wouldn’t happen again. Ironically the self-plagiarized article is titled, “Why Smart People Are Stupid,” though his editors found several more with duplicated material from Lehrer’s previous columns for Wired, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
But it didn’t stop there. Lehrer admitted over the weekend to fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for his bestselling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and resigned from his job at the New Yorker. He was found out by journalist Michael C. Moynihan, who discovered that Lehrer had spliced up Dylan quotes in the book.
Lehrer said that “the lies are over now,” in a press release from his publisher. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologise to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.” The book has been taken off the shelves and removed from Amazon.
But Lehrer should know better. He’s been writing about neuroscience and human behaviour for years. In his “Why Smart People Are Stupid” article last month for the New Yorker, he wrote about cognition bias, based on a new study, Cognitive Sophistication Does Not Attenuate The Bias Blind Spot:
Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.
And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse.
He also wrote on “The New Neuroscience Of Choking,” last month for the New Yorker, where he examined a new study published in Neuron about why some people cave under pressure:
Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure. What’s more, the scientists demonstrated that the most loss-averse individuals showed the biggest drop-off in performance when the stakes were raised. In other words, the fear of failure was making them more likely to fail. They kept on losing because they hated losses.
Ultimately, Lehrer got caught up in his own lies, and found it hard to stop. But that was after he got away with them in the first place. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen calls this marginal thinking, where people place short-term rewards above long-term consequences.
Lehrer can blame our culture, the fast-paced and cutthroat world of journalism, or any other easy target for his mistake, but at the end of the day, it was his decision. And only he can take responsibility for it.
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