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What Is the Mandela Effect?

When masses of people believe an event occurred when it didn't

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published April 01, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Have you ever misquoted famous movie quotes or felt like masses of people believed that an event that actually did not happen? Indeed, human memory is far from perfect.

We all have experienced the Mandela Effect one way or another. In fact, a 2020 memory study from the journal Psychological Science found that, when asked to recall information, 76% of adults made at least one detectable error.

The Mandela Effect is a popular and heavily debated type of false memory. It refers to the situation in which many people thought that an event occurred when it did not.

The craziest part is that groups are headstrong and can remember an incident or distinctive experience, even when it is absolutely incorrect.

The three prominent features of the Mandela Effect can include:

  1. Recalling entire events that simply did not happen.
  2. Having warped memories where some aspects are partly or wholly false.
  3. Several unrelated people share almost identical contorted or inaccurate memories.

Origin Of The Term

Looking at the source of the Mandela effect, some notable examples, and some possible explanations for this strange convergence of perceptions can help shed light on this unique phenomenon.

Fiona Broome started a website to observe this phenomenon in more detail. Here is where the origin of the term "Mandela Effect" was coined in 2009.

It all started when Broome went to a conference and began talking to other conference-goers about the tragedy of previous South African president Nelson Mandela and his death in the South African prison in the 1980s.

However, with further research, you find out that President Mandela did not die in the 1980s. Instead, he passed away in his own home in 2013. Broome talked to other people about her faulty memories, but she also learned that she was not alone.

The people she spoke to also remembered seeing news coverage of Mandela's death, as well as a speech made by his widow. There was quite a shock to Broome when she realized that a large group of people could remember an identical event in such detail, and it never really happened.

Fiona then began her website to discuss what she called the "Mandela Effect" and other incidents similar to this occurrence. Most of the time, these memories stem from or are based on popular culture.

Some of the most widely recognized examples would be people forgetting the actual color of a wrapper or packet of a favorite snack or trusting that the classic TV show "Looney Tunes" was indeed called "Looney Toons." We will go over more examples of the Mandela Effect later in this article.


Examples Of The Mandela Effect

The powerful story of Nelson Mandela is not the only instance of this type of false group memory. As promised, we will look into some of the various examples of the Mandela Effect that we have seen in pop culture.

"Luke, I Am Your Father"

Even if you have or have not seen Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back, you can probably recognize the famous line from this movie where Darth Vader utters the line, "Luke, I am your father."

However, you will possibly be surprised to learn that at the time, the line was actually, "No, I am your father."

Many people have distinct memories of the being the first phrase rather than the second phrase. What about you?

"Mirror, Mirror on the Wall"

If you have watched the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you could probably recall this line from the movie, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"

But with further examination, you actually learn that the phrase is "Magic mirror on the wall" instead.

"Oscar Meyer"

For some odd reason, there was great controversy over the spelling of one of the famous hot dog brands - Oscar Mayer weiners.

Some people wholeheartedly claim that they remember the brand being spelled "Meyer" rather than "Mayer" (which is the correct spelling).

"Berenstein Bears"

There is a famous children's book series called the "Berenstain Bears," which is definitely not immune to the Mandela Effect.

Lots of people claim to remember the name being the "Berenstein" Bears (spelled with an "e" rather than an "a").

This is very similar to the "Oscar Mayer" issue and perhaps hints at an underlying cognitive/logical reason for the Mandela Effect instead of parallel realities.

"Life is like a box of chocolates"

Here is another familiar misquotation that stems from the classic 1994 film Forrest Gump. The main character shares a quote he picked up from his mother.

In the scene, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) actually says, "My mother always said life was like a box of chocolates." You can go back and watch the movie and see for yourself!

"Sex in the City"

Many people swore that the title of a famous show on HBO was Sex in the City when actually the correct name of the show is Sex and the City. 

There were claims that people saw legitimate merchandise with the show name spelled otherwise.

"Meet the Flintstones!"

So we have all probably been pronouncing (or even singing the theme song) the name of this precious animated family as the "Flinstones" when the actual name of this prehistoric family is the "Flintstones."


Causes of the Mandela Effect

To learn more about why the Mandela Effect happens and what could possibly trigger it, let us look into the potential causes of the Mandela Effect.

Priming

In psychology, the phenomenon of priming is where exposure to a stimulus directly influences someone's response to a succeeding stimulus.

An example of this phenomenon is when someone hears the word "sky" and they immediately think of other related terms like "cloud" or "stars" and definitely more quickly than words that are not so related. It is also known as suggestibility, which can affect a person's memory and reaction.

For instance, the phrase "did you take the green book from the shelf" is more evocative than the expression "did you grab anything from the shelf?"

So, this is because the latter phrase contains a more general, open-ended inquiry, while the former describes the action of taking a specific object, which in this case is the green book.

Hence, the first phrase has a most substantial influence on memory than the second question.

False Memories

The concept of false memories provides another potential explanation for the Mandela Effect. False memories are defined as untrue, distorted, or outlandish recollections of an event.

Some false memories do contain elements of fact and do closely resemble the actual event in question.

However, other false memories are entirely wrong. The idea of false memories can cause discomfort for most people (maybe you are thinking that this can be a little scary), and even worse is that memory mistakes are actually quite common.

Memory obviously does not work like a camera or recording device, where you objectively catalog images or record events and statements in the purest form.

Confabulation

Have you heard of confabulations before? This could be another probable mechanism underlying faulty memories and the Mandela Effect.

Confabulations are essentially false statements or anecdotes of events that do not have factual support or relevant evidence.

While confabulations are technically filled with incorrect information and ideas, the subject retelling the story will regard these proclamations as fact.

It is also important to note that people do not intentionally confabulate; in fact, people are mostly unaware of the information that could make their stories accurate or inaccurate and can not provide better explanations.

Confabulation is a common symptom of specific neurological memory conditions like Alzheimer's and other diseases of dementia.

When someone with dementia confabulates, they are not attempting to deceive or lie - they do not have the required information or grasp to accurately recall a specific memory or event.

Personal or Emotional Bias

Did you know that emotional and personal bias can both influence memories? Studies have revealed a variety of factors that cause false remembering.

For instance, incredibly emotionally arousing events typically produce memories that are incorrect even when vivid. Maybe you remember an event that caused you to be extremely excited or terrified?

Look back at that memory and see if your emotion influenced the remembering. Other factors will also increase distortions of memory like misleading information, interference, and leading questions (like priming that we discussed earlier).

Therefore, psychology and memory science have an overall view that our ability to remember things is highly error-prone, untrustworthy, and inconsistent.

However, it is crucial to recognize that these studies were usually conducted in relatively artificial conditions in a scientific laboratory.

In fact, researchers discovered a simple method of inducing false memories called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) task paradigm.

During the DRM task paradigm, participants read a list of related words. Here is an example of a list below:

  • guitar
  • piano
  • accordion
  • harmonica
  • flute

After reading the list, researchers will then ask the subjets to say whether or not they recall what is called a lure word - or another related word that was not included on the list.

A lure word in the above example of the list could be "violin." So the term violin is semantically related to the other words on the list, but it was not present, as one can tell.

But usually, some participants would apparently recognize the lure word and recall reading it, even if it was never on the list. And according to this same study, people remember false memories generated via the DRM task paradigm for as long as 60 days.

But, again, people can study a list of words or pictures or watch short clips and then perform a recall test right after, but all of these conditions are often designed to encourage memory errors.

As a result, there is very little genuinely known about the accuracy of memories from real-world, first-person experiences, which emphasize the true memories we make on a daily basis outside of a laboratory.

Additionally, we know that memory errors occur and are common, but what would happen if we removed the experimental manipulations and laboratory settings?

How often do memory mishaps happen in real-life environments?

Alternative Realities or Parallel Universes

So, Broome describes the Mandela Effect as she has a clear memory of an event, as well as many other people, that never actually occurred in reality.

There is one theory about the basis of the Mandela Effect that actually originates from quantum physics and the string theory and pertains to the concept that rather than experiencing one timeline of events, it is possible that alternative universes or realities are taking place and mixing with our timeline.

This theoretical framework describes the universe and the very nature of reality in terms of small strings that vibrate in 10 different dimensions.

Therefore, based on string theory, one can say that our universe is only one of many, possibly infinite, other universes, known as the multiverse.

Essentially, unrelated groups of people have the same memories because the timeline has been altered as we shift between these different realities.

If you think this sounds a bit outlandish, you are not alone. Even though the mathematical essence of string theory works and the theory of alternate realities is unfalsifiable, as in, there is no method to disprove that these other universes don't exist.

The idea itself remains unproven and highly controversial. As a result, this far-fetched theory can gain traction among the Mandela Effect communities.

Since one cannot prove that it is inaccurate, you cannot discount its possibility. The excitement of a bit of mystery in everyday life also likely comes into play for many people.

The Impact of the Internet

The role of the internet in impacting the memories of the masses should not be misjudged. It is probably no coincidence that consideration of the Mandela Effect has grown in this digital age.

The internet is a reliable way to spread information, and with this spreading of data comes the prospect for misinformation and fallacies to acquire traction.

People then begin to build communities based around these falsehoods and what was once in the imagination starts to seem true to life. An extensive study of over 100,000 news stories discussed across Twitter, conducted over ten years, showed that lies, conspiracies, and rumors won out over the truth every time by about 70%.

This was done by real, verified accounts of real people who were accountable for spreading false information at a much higher pace than the truth. This concept of the speed at which false information spreads on the internet could assist in explaining the Mandela Effect.

As each person expresses their own experience or memory of an event, those false memories could affect other people's recollections, thus subconsciously motivating them to remember the events in the same way.

This explanation is backed by evidence that recalling something continually builds your conviction in the memory even if it grows more inaccurate over time.

As more people delivered incorrect details, these became integrated into other people's memories as truths and reinforced their confidence that they were correct.

Is it possible to recognize a false memory?

Recognizing a false memory is probably almost impossible. It is truly difficult to uncloud your memory, as almost everything we "remember" can be muddled, malformed, and inaccurate.

Typically, the most reliable way to know if your memory is fake or not (sadly) is to try to corroborate your story with other people or take on some of your own online research.

If you remember a phrase or saying or line a certain way, you can search this fact from a reliable source or straight from the movie/media itself.

Even trying to confirm it with others you trust could be something good. However, one of the issues that come with corroborating a story with others is that usually, people tend to confirm what another person believes to be true.

Asking a person, "Nelson Mandela died in prison, right?" or "Did Nelson Mandela die in prison?" are leading questions that increase the odds a person will answer "yes."

A much better question could be, "Do you know how Nelson Mandela die?" Fortunately, most false memories seem to be harmless when it comes to the Mandela effect.

Replacing an "a" in Berenstein with an "e" usually and hopefully only harms your pride in remembering small details.

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology.

How to reference this article:

Frothingham, M.B. (2022, April 01). What Is the Mandela Effect? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-the-mandela-effect.html

Sources

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  • “Mandela Effect: How It Works, Causes, and More.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/mandela-effect#causes.
  • Nall, Rachel. “The Mandela Effect: What It Is and How It Happens.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 13 Mar. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/mandela-effect#why-this-happens.
  • Phelan, Joe. “What Is the Mandela Effect? and Have You Experienced It?” LiveScience, Purch, 19 Mar. 2022, https://www.livescience.com/what-is-mandela-effect.

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