Remembering the Mandela Effect
Some claim that certain common false memories are evidence for alternate realities.
by Brian Dunning
February 28, 2017
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Ever have one of those moments where you watch an old movie or pick up an old book, and hear a quote or see something that stands in stark contrast to what you thought you remembered? We all have. But what about a special case, where the exact same broken memory is shared by a large number of people? At first glance, it seems like this must be something different. It's no surprise that any of us individually might remember something wrong; but for a whole group to share an identical false memory seems to suggest that there might be a new phenomenon at work. It's been called the Mandela Effect.
The Mandela Effect is named for one of its most famous examples, that of Nelson Mandela, whose funeral some people remembered after he supposedly died in prison. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in South Africa, but he survived it and was released in 1990. He was President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and some of those same people said "Wait, he died in prison, I watched the funeral on TV." He didn't actually die until 2013; and every time his name came up, these same people said "Wait a minute, I thought he was dead."
Now, this group who erroneously remembered that Mandela had died did not include me, but I'm sure some people thought he had. One who did was psychic ghost hunter Fiona Broome, who writes that she discovered that some people she knew also thought that Mandela had died. Seeking an explanation for what she described as an "emerging phenomenon", she turned not to social science, but to some nebulous concept of alternate realities. In her own words:
The "Mandela Effect" is what happens when someone has a clear memory of something that never happened in this reality. Many of us — mostly total strangers — remember the exact same events with the exact same details. However, our memories are different from what's in history books, newspaper archives, and so on. This isn't a conspiracy, and we're not talking about "false memories." Many of us speculate that parallel realities exist, and we've been "sliding" between them without realizing it. (Others favor the idea that we're each enjoying holodeck experiences, possibly with some programming glitches. In my opinion, these aren't mutually exclusive.)
Is a lot of people remembering something wrong evidence for alternate realities? Not really. What it is is an observation. In the scientific method, an observation is the starting point. We then develop hypotheses to explain the observation, then we test the hypotheses, and if any of them passes the testing and offers strong evidence, it then becomes the theory that explains the observation, which may change and improve over time. We'll take Broome's alternate realities on board as one hypothesis. But before we go any further, let's expand our observations to see what examples there are besides Nelson Mandela.
The most famous is that of the Berenstain Bears, a series of more than 300 children's books, written by Stan and Jan Berenstain, and later continued by their son Mike Berenstain. Many people remember reading these as children as the Berenstein Bears. It seems that at some point, the publisher changed the title, and the usual explanation is that there was still sufficient anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s that Berenstein was changed to Berenstain to make the title more palatable.
I myself have a specific memory of sitting in a public library as a kid, holding a Berenstein Bears book, and specifically pondering the title. I thought a Bearenstein was like a monster man called Frankenstein or a monster truck called Truckenstein — a Bearenstein was just a really awesome bear, to my 10-year-old mind. I did study the spelling because I remember being annoyed there was no "A" in the "Bear" part of the name. So, my thinking has always been, I couldn't possibly have missed it if had been spelled Berenstain instead of the Berenstein I'm sure I saw. So, growing up, I always uncritically accepted that somewhere in those intervening years, the publishers must have changed the spelling to make the name less "offensively" Jewish.
There was even at least one case where a video cassette of a Berenstain Bears cartoon was published with title actually printed on the tape as Berenstein. It seems that the person who typed that in may have been yet another victim of this famous example of the Mandela Effect.
Similarly, the story goes that the HBO series Sex and the City had originally been named Sex in the City until the network censors changed it to make it less overtly suggestive of people actually in the act of having sex. Many remember that it was Sex in the City for just the first season, and others remember it as having always been Sex in the City for its entire run, with the change having been made only after the series was completed and so only applying to syndication and reruns.
Everyone seems to remember enjoying Jiffy peanut butter as a kid, but there was never any such brand — which I found hard to believe when I first heard it.
There are a number of popular examples of the Mandela Effect in movies. Everyone seems to remember Humphrey Bogart saying "Play it again, Sam," yet it's a line he never said in Casablanca or any other film. Everyone seems to remember the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs saying "Mirror, mirror, on the wall", a line she never said either (and I bet nobody remembers that her name was Grimhilde). Everyone seems to remember the comedian Sinbad starring as a genie in a cheesy comedy film titled Shazaam, but no such movie exists.
There are other examples, of course, but these half dozen or so are the ones that appear not only on Broome's site, but also on the Snopes page about the Mandela Effect, the subreddit, and various other pages about the phenomenon.
But — is the Mandela Effect a phenomenon at all? At least, is it, in some way that's distinct from types of false memories already well established in psychology? Let's look at our examples and see if they have anything interesting in common.
The three movie examples, "Play it again, Sam", "Mirror, mirror, on the wall", and Shazaam, all turn out to be substantially the same as the real versions. "Play it again, Sam" is sort of a hybrid of two lines said by Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, and it was also the title of a 1972 movie in reference to the famous phrase; and the phrase does effectively communicate what the characters meant. "Magic mirror on the wall" was what Queen Grimhilde actually said in the movie, which is close enough, and an easy enough mistake to make. And the genie movie was titled Kazaam, starring Shaquille O'Neal, not Shazaam, starring Sinbad; probably a simple case of people conflating the spelling of Shaquille's unusual first name with the genie's, and accidentally associating Sinbad whose name matches the Arabian theme of the genie (it's not like it's a Hollywood classic where anyone cares about the details). Heck, for a long time, Jink Jink was as close as my memory would get to Jar Jar Binks. Anyhow, getting a movie quote wrong by a word or two is the rule, not the exception, for most people. No alternate realities are required to explain this, and these aren't really even false memories so much as they are normally degraded memories. "Play it again, Sam" and "Mirror mirror" have been thrust upon us in pop culture so many times that it would be more surprising if we remembered the original versions instead. We don't remember them wrong; we remember the more common versions instead.
The peanut butter is called Jif, not Jiffy, and always has been; though from a survey of forum discussions, it turns out a number of people remember it changing. Are we forced to conclude that such people must have slipped from one alternate reality to another, or can we allow for the possibility of memory's thoroughly-proven fuzziness to be the only needed explanation? Jiffy Pop popcorn and Jiffy Lube oil change are just two products using the common word jiffy, and provide precisely the kind of common conflation that would make us confuse Jif and Jiffy.
Remember the old painting of Henry VIII holding a turkey leg? No, you remember hundreds of 20th century cartoons of Henry VIII holding a turkey leg. There was never an old painting depicting this. You're not remembering anything wrong; you're correctly remembering the more common image in pop culture.
It's the same with Berenstein and Berenstain. How many names end with stain compared to stein? Very few. Since these books were probably ones that you read as a child, your memory of its spelling and pronunciation is likely colored by a lifetime of hearing a much more common version.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Reporters from all over the world covered the event. Tens of thousands of South Africans attended. A convoy of cars, escorted by police, transported Mandela into Capetown where he and other leaders of the African National Congress addressed the crowd. The event lasted much of the day and was a powerful moment of solemn pride. Many Americans watched some part of it on the news, and retained some vague memory of something on TV about a large dignified event in South Africa pertaining to Nelson Mandela, a name many generally recognized but didn't (at the time) know a whole lot about. Some leader of the movement to oppose apartheid. It shouldn't be too surprising that in later years, when the name Nelson Mandela came up, some Americans might remember seeing some large state procession on TV that could easily be mistaken for a funeral.
If Fiona Broome had been a cognitive psychologist instead of a psychic ghost hunter, the idea of a Mandela Effect might never have existed. Our brains confabulate invented memories to fill in the gaps inherent in old recollections. We misattribute later memories to earlier events, gradually replacing what we actually heard in the movie theater with the more common pop-culture version. And most of all, we simply forget things that weren't all that important to begin with; and when we hear a close-enough version later, we adopt it as a good-enough replacement. When that new version is a common one, perhaps made public in the media, it's a certainty that many of us will adopt it and replace the old fuzzy memory. With apologies to Ms. Broome, we need look no further than common, well-known cognitive errors to explain the Mandela Effect. It is not necessary to introduce concepts like parallel dimensions or alternate realities; or indeed, to have a Mandela Effect at all.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Remembering the Mandela Effect." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
28 Feb 2017. Web.
21 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4560>
References & Further Reading
Bjorklund, D. False-memory Creation in Children and Adults: Theory, Research, and Implications. Mahwah: L. Erlbaum, 2000.
Emery, D. "The Mandela Effect." Urban Legend Reference Pages. Snopes, 24 Jul. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2017. <http://www.snopes.com/2016/07/24/the-mandela-effect/>
Hirstein, W. Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.
Roediger, H., Marsh, E. "False Memory." Scholarpedia. 1 Jan. 2009, Volume 4, Number 8: 3858.
Royko, V. "Common Explanations." Debunking Mandela Effects. Vaughn Royko, 24 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2017. <http://www.debunkingmandelaeffects.com/common-explanations/>
Schacter, D., Curran, T. "The Cognitive Neuroscience of False Memories." Psychiatric Annals. 1 Dec. 1995, Volume 25, Issue 12: 727-731.
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