The Mandela Effect

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Recently, I stumbled onto an internet community. A weird one. The stuff is Flat Earth Society-level weird.

Have you ever heard of The Mandela Effect?

Basically, people have lots of false memories, like Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 80s. History seems to prove that he was still alive decades later, but an incredible number of people have been convinced that he was dead for years, until they were surprised by evidence that they were wrong.

At first, I figured that the Mandela Effect was just a psychological name for the event where masses of people have a similar false memory due to unknown or complicated circumstances. I love psychology and cognitive biases, so obviously I jumped into it. I wanted to not only see examples, but also try to figure out if I had some of the fake memories myself. Seems like a pretty normal reaction coming from a young adult obsessed with the human mind with too much free time.

But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s not about exploring what caused the memories to be wrong. It’s about trying to prove the memories right. Basically, the community devised some theory about parallel universes, and people can “slide” between them. Those universes are numerous (Another multiverse theory) and very similar to each other (History corrects itself and all universes tend toward the same events, etc), and when we slide to another one, only our mind replaces the mind of the other self, while the other self either comes here or goes to yet another universe. As the universes are incredibly similar, we don’t notice those changes, which could happen extremely often, or very rarely. The changes could be random or triggered by specific events.

As we slide, we enter an entire new universe, where we may notice differences, but things are how they’ve always been in that new universe, so you can’t find any evidence of the change, except for other people that remember your version.

Basically, those people think that a Science-Fiction idea like that is more likely than them misremembering stuff.

I have to admit, as I read that stuff, I had this creepy feeling of “what if they’re right?” growing as I ran into more and more wrong memories that I also had. Then I figured out a reasonable explanation as to why lots of people could misremember that particular thing, and it just went away. According to their subreddit, I’m the kind of skeptic who can’t be convinced by anything, and I will never “accept the truth”. The thing is, I know that most of my “explanations” are probably wrong, but the simple fact that I can find another explanation than the sliding thing is enough to avoid getting brainwashed by the echo chamber.

Here are a couple examples, in no particular order. Some of them are just plain dumb, but you will most likely at least share a couple fake memories with the masses. I’ll also give my explanation for all of them. My explanation is most likely wrong in every case, but it’s also more likely than multiverse drifting, so just skip it if you don’t like it.

  • Number of states in the US: Lots of people seem to remember 51 or 52 states instead of 50.

Explanation: Puerto Rico and the District of Washington are sometimes mistaken for actual states, and the number has increased several times since the original 13. The stars on the flag are also not arranged in a regular 5×10, but instead a slightly different pattern, which could suggest that the number of states is not a round number. I did not share this memory, as I am canadian. I’ve always known that there were “about 50” states, and never really cared about the exact number, so I didn’t really remember it right either.

  • The Berenstain Bears: A serie of children books are often misremembered as “The Berenstein Bears” by people who actually owned them and loved them for years.

Explanation: It sounds a lot like “Stein”, and it just feels natural. Most people read that book when they were little kids, and if they knew how to read by then they certainly were not experts. Bad reading plus very old memory equals fake memory.

  • Challenger Shuttle Explosion: Lots of people seem to think it occured in 1984 or 1985, instead of the actual year of 1986

Explanation: I wasn’t born when this happened, but I guess lots of people didn’t take note of the exact date. It happened in January, and most people I know still write the last year instead of the current year in the first few months of a new year. There was also a 1984 book, so that year pops to mind more easily. Honestly I don’t really know for this one.

  • Curious George: The Monkey has no tail, even though lots of people remember him having one.

This one is obvious. Monkeys usually are depicted with a tail, and nobody pays special attention to that. They assume it’s there without checking, then are surprised when it’s not.

  • Jif Peanut Butter: For some reason, many people think the brand changed from Jiffy to Jif at some point. It has actually always been named Jif.

Jiffy is an actual word in the english language, meaning a very short amount of time. Then, there was that ad back in the days, where that woman bragged about how the sandwich could be done “in a Jiffy” when Jif was involved. It’s easy to see why people would misremember that.

  • Henry VIII portrait: Lots of people remember a painting of him with a Turkey leg in his hands. This painting doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.

The guy was rich and fat. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him eating that sort of food, even in paintings. Plus, The Simpsons did that one episode with homer dressed like Henry VIII holding this. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Simpsons were part of popular culture enough to mess with people’s minds like that. When you don’t care about something, you can easily be tricked into misremembering it.

  • The World Map: large groups of people feel like the world map has changed. They remember Autralias a lot further from Asia, surrounded with water, or New Zealand positioned differently around Australia and a lot closer. Some people remember Japan to be a lot lower on the map, South America was never that much to the East, Germany was Bigger, Mongolia was part of China, there was a huge ice continent at the North Pole just like Antartica, etc.

Americans are not exactly known for their knowledge of geography. Combined with the fact that few people ever really take the time to look in details where each border is, we usually just check the map for something in particular or we barely see it in a background of something. I actually experienced this one. I remembered Australia way further South-East, right next to New Zealand. But I figured I must have never really cared about Australia enough to notice. My eyes saw it in the sea, and my brain remembered it further out at sea.

  • Company Logos: People think there was an hyphen in “KitKat”, that the Pepsi logo colors were inverted before, that the Volkswagen logo was different, that Skechers had a T in the name, etc

Skechers does sound like Sketchers. Without having the pepsi logo in front of my face, I wouldn’t be able to tell which color is on top, so I guess echo chamber is to blame for that one. Just like when you look at a word long enough it becomes weird, when you hear “the pepsi logo changed!” and you look and try to remember how it was, it becomes weird. KitKat really could use the hyphen. It feels more natural, and again it’s not important so we never noticed.

  • Famous works of art: The Mona Lisa is smiling now? Didn’t the Thinker have his fist on his forehead? Some other people are sure his fist was on his chin, but not as an open hand like right now. Starry Night feels different, but nobody knows why.

The Mona Lisa literally got popular because the smile was weird. How surprising it is that it feels weird? As for the Thinker, I had a clear memory of the fist on the forehead, so I really got creeped out for that one. There are even descriptions of the forehead version right next to the real thing, or people making photo edits or taking picture with the statue while in the forehead pose, which makes no sense to me as the pose barely qualifies as “close”. I guess it just feels more natural to have the fist on the forehead, so people never really paid attention to the real thing, but still, that’s vendors describing their own product as fist on forehead while the copy they sell is hand on chin. That’s weird.

  • Popular Culture: The Biggest one here is the Charlie Brown halloween episode. So many people remember that the Great Pumpkin showed up at the end but Linus was asleep so he missed it. It actually never showed up. Also, thousands of people seem to remember the Author name as Charles Schultz, but it’s actually Charles Schulz. Looney Tunes or Looney Toons? Did Sinbad ever play a genie in any movie whatsoever? No he didn’t.

I also experienced both Charlie Brown MEs, but I guess, like the Berenstein bears, we were just young and didn’t really care. We imagined the pumpkin, so it became memory, and the author’s name was weird so we just imagined it a little weirder.

  • News: Many celebrities, including the person who’s name is in the Effect, are misremembered as dead way earlier than their actual death (if dead at all). Hillary Clinton’s name is misremembered by a lot of people as Hilary. Even by the guy who designed this debate ticket.

It seems like, several decades ago, Hilary was a name while Hillary was barely ever used. Nowaways, this switched, but I guess I can see why. Also the sheer amount of fake death news about celebrities that we see every week, there’s bound to be some that we don’t fact check.

Then, as some sort of extra proof that either those people are going crazy or the universe is, there’s the concept of flip flopping.

Some people say that they experienced the exact opposite Mandela Effect about a topic before, and then had it again reversed in our reality. Lots of guys over at the subreddit swear that, at some point in the beginning of August, they saw the name of Hillary Clinton with only one L, and thought that was weird. Then they googled it, and it showed up like that everywhere, so they figured that they must have been wrong before. Then, a couple weeks later, it was back to Hillary everywhere, and they had to, once again, accept that they were wrong now. They seem to think that the guy who made the ticket mentionned earlier experienced this.

The Mona Lisa is especially popular for its flip flopping. Another well known one is the Apollo 13 movie quote “Houston, we have a problem”. Many people agree that, at some point in the past, they went to look it up, and found that Tom Hanks said “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, and were surprised about it. Then, later, it changed back.

I’m still completely weirded out by the fact that so many people just decided that their memory was SO reliable that parallel universe gliding was more likely than being wrong. I’ve heard of cognitive dissonance, but this is crazy. They also have their own echo chambers, where any dissent is first criticized for “not being open to new possibilities”, and later outright banned if the person fails to fall in line.

Do you think that jumping around infinite universes is more likely than you ever being wrong about a childhood memory of the spelling of a book about talking bears? I’d like to be that confident, but I just can’t shake the idea that my brain is not perfect.

  • Oh please – human memories are notoriously unreliable, subject to modification by all sorts of later psychological effects – including some form of crossover from stuff we see on TV – like the Simpsons and Henry VIII, as you say. Plus: don’t forgot that however smart we are, we’re all idiots at various times, places, mental states etc. Therefore I judge the likelihood of us seamlessly jumping between parallel universes to be almost zero, compared to the alternative explanation that we remember lots of stuff wrong.

    • Kaito Kid

      I’m wondering how many of the people on those sites and forums are actually trolls, versus how many are actual weirdos who believe that stuff.

      Out of curiosity, did you personally have any of those false memories?

      • Troll or weirdo – which is better. I’ve no idea what the proportions are, it’s an interesting thought. As an aside, in a scifi/fantasy book (the Many Coloured Land) by Julian May, I recall one seemingly sensible character from an advanced interplanetary society seriously believing that the earth was hollow. I was incredulous then about the likelihood of such a character, maybe I was wrong:-)).

        As to me and false memories, umm, how would I know:-) I’m sure we all have our comforting little self-delusions:-) Specifically as to false memories, or at least faulty ones, I firmly recall visiting my sister at university in Aberystwyth (in Wales) when I was about 10. Thing is: she didn’t go there, she went to Cardiff:-) I imagine my memories are reasonably accurate, just the mental label that I’ve added is wrong. But maybe not.