The Mandela effect is a type of false memory that occurs when many different people incorrectly remember the same thing. It refers to a widespread false memory that Nelson Mandela, South African human rights activist and eventual president, died in prison in the 1980s.
Thus widespread incorrect information can subtly influence individual memories, giving rise to conspiracy theories and harmful false beliefs. Incorrect beliefs about the death of Nelson Mandela are just one example of the Mandela effect.
Read on to learn more about the Mandela effect, including some examples and possible causes.
The Mandela effect is when a group of people misremembers a historical event or person.
Writer and researcher Fiona Broome coined the term over a decade ago when she created a website detailing her recollections of former South African President Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s.
Nelson Mandela did not die in prison in the 1980s. After serving 27 years in prison, Mandela became president of South Africa from 1994–1999. He died in 2013.
Despite this, Broome thought she remembered international news coverage of Mandela’s death in the 1980s. She found other people who shared these false memories.
Memory is highly malleable. Input from other people can change memories, causing people to misremember events or remember events that never happened. Some potential causes of the Mandela effect include:
False memories are untrue or distorted recollections of an event. Some false memories contain elements of fact, closely resembling the actual event in question. However, others are entirely false.
Memory is very suggestible. This means that information from another person, a person’s desire to believe something different, or false information online can influence memory.
People can believe a wide variety of false things. For example, scientists have been able to falsely induce memories of committing a crime. In one study, people could not distinguish false from real memories.
Researchers have even 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, such as:
After reading the list, researchers will ask the participants whether or not they recall a “lure word,” which is a related word that is not on the list.
Usually, the participants will recognize the lure word and recall reading it, even though it was never on the list.
For example, a person who does not recall what happened to Nelson Mandela might conclude that he died a long time ago, then report remembering this “fact.” The person is not lying. They truly believe the false memory.
Confabulation is a
In psychology, priming describes a phenomenon in which exposure to a stimulus directly influences a person’s response to a subsequent stimulus. For example, if a person reads or hears the word “grass,” they will recognize another related word, such as “tree” or “lawnmower,” more quickly than an unrelated word.
Priming uses suggestive techniques to trigger a certain response. For instance, “Did you grab the red ball from the shelf?” is much more suggestive than the phrase, “Did you take anything from the shelf?”
This is because the second phrase contains a general, open-ended question, while the first describes the action of grabbing a specific object: “the” red ball. Therefore, the first phrase has a stronger influence on memory than the second.
Alternate realities or parallel universes
Broome describes the Mandela effect as a clear memory of an event that never occurred in this reality. Her explanation ties into several popular theories that suggest that the Mandela effect occurs when our reality interacts with other alternate realities or parallel universes. While these explanations draw upon real theories in physics, they lack scientific support.
For example, some people argue that the Mandela effect provides evidence for multiple universes. Some physicists, drawing on theories such as string theory, argue that there are infinite possible universes.
Scientists have not tested the claim that the Mandela effect provides evidence for multiple universes. Evidence from memory research suggests that other theories of false memory might better explain the phenomenon.
While mathematical modeling supports string theory and the notion of multiple universes, both remain controversial.
The concept of the Mandela effect continues to gain popular support on blogs. Some of these blogs argue the Mandela effect is evidence of multiple universes. Others use the Mandela effect to promote false claims and spread conspiracies.
The internet is a potent tool for spreading false memories and beliefs. Drawing upon the basic principles of memories, some websites may be able to convince people to believe things that never happened by using tactics such as:
- combining false information with true information
- repeating a false claim so often that it begins to seem true
- spreading fake news stories to support a false claim
Features of the Mandela effect can include:
- having distorted memories in which some aspects are partially or entirely inaccurate
- clearly remembering entire events that did not happen
- several unrelated people sharing similar distorted or inaccurate memories
The Mandela effect occurs when a person believes that their distorted memories are, in fact, accurate recollections. They can clearly remember events that happened differently or events that never occurred at all.
The Mandela effect does not involve lying or deception. Instead, it occurs when a person or group has clear but false memories.
This section includes a few famous examples of the Mandela effect.
‘Luke, I am your father’
Many people misquote James Earl Jones’s famous line from the 1980 film “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.”
Instead of “Luke, I am your father,” Darth Vader actually says, “No, I am your father.”
Many fans of the popular children’s series, “The Berenstain Bears,” report remembering the bears’ family name as “Berenstein,” after the authors.
In reality, both the bears and the authors were named Berenstain.
What did the Monopoly Man look like in the game Monopoly? Many people assert he had a monocle and cane.
In fact, he did not have a monocle. This provides evidence for a visual Mandela effect.
‘Play it again, Sam’
In “Casablanca,” another Hollywood classic, people remember Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick saying, “Play it again, Sam.” Some people say they can even “hear” his voice saying those words.
However, it is Ingrid Bergman’s character Elsa who says, “Play it, Sam.”
Some people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s report a movie called “Shazam,” in which Sinbad played a genie or other magical character fulfilling a child’s wishes.
Sinbad never made such a movie.
One of the challenges of false memories is that they present similarly to real memories. A person may be very confident in the memory and spontaneously generate details to support it. Without external evidence of the memory’s falseness, there may be no evidence that it is not true.
A 2020 paper supports this claim, finding that people are no better than chance at detecting false memories.
A person can improve their chances of detecting false memories by:
- consulting reliable sources such as encyclopedias, mainstream news sites, or peer-reviewed journals
- considering whether they may have a memory because someone else has that memory
- seeking independent evidence to support memories that seem suspicious or potentially harmful
The Mandela effect refers to widespread false memories that large numbers of people or a group of individuals believe. They may be harmless but can also support conspiracy theories or political agendas.
Memory is not a perfect recording of events that happened. It can change with time, and with practice and priming. If a person’s only source of evidence that something happened is from their own memory, it is possible that it did not happen.
Independent verification of memories, especially those with important social or political consequences, can slow the spread of misinformation and conspiracies.