Alexis S. Torres, BA, Graduate Student
Gene A. Brewer, PhD
Arizona State University
Many of us have experienced vivid memories of an event from our personal past only to have the veracity of that memory challenged by coworkers, friends, or family. Cognitive psychologists interested in memory have made tremendous progress over the past 40 years understanding ways in which our memory fails us. Clever experimental procedures have been developed that can reliably produce memory illusions–memory for events that never occurred yet feel incredibly believable. Much has been learned about how false memories are created and the types of people who are most susceptible to producing them. These findings are generalizable outside of the laboratory insofar as work in this area has led to reform in policing and law contexts where the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is crucial for a fair adjudication of court cases. For the modern memory theorist, much is now known about false memory and it has become standard practice for scientific findings from this research to be disseminated to undergraduate students in our introductory psychology, cognitive psychology, and human memory courses.
What is less well studied is when large groups of people share a common misconception, or false memory, regarding a cultural event that has never occurred. For example, many readers of this article will strongly identify with the statement “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Truer words have rarely been spoken, however, this aphorism is not exactly what Tom Hanks’ character in Forest Gump said while sitting on that park bench while waiting for his bus. The character actually said, “Life was like a box of chocolates…” Furthermore, his name was not Forest … it was Forrest. Why is it that so many people provided with this example persist in their erroneous belief that Forrest said “Life is like a box of chocolates”? Why do most of us remember the same statement that was never uttered in the movie? Why did you read this paragraph and not immediately notice that Forrest’s name had been misspelled? Answers to all of these questions and more can be found in the memory literature where inattention to detail, incorporation of misinformation from alternative sources, and failure to monitor the source of details being remembered have been shown to be important factors in creating false memories.
The Mandela Effect refers to when large groups of people share the same false memory. The name comes from a paranormal writer who reported her memory for Nelson Mandela’s funeral even though he was still alive at that point in time. Subsequently, many others shared similar false memories of his passing. A meme was born and many collective false memories have since been discovered. These commonly held false beliefs arise in very similar ways to false memories that we can create in the laboratory. False memories generally arise from people incorporating incorrect details into their memories that they were either presented after the fact or generated in their own mind during or after an event. To create false memories in people, one only needs the perfect blend of irrelevant details, misinformation, and repetition. Under these conditions, individuals are left convinced that they experienced an event, or at least details of an event, that never transpired. Upon remembering these incorrect details, if the person fails to monitor the source of the details (e.g., did I think this or did it really happen?) then the false memory is successfully implanted. What is unique about the Mandela effect is that it is a case study in how external media (news, social media, YouTube) reinforces inaccurate details of experience and large groups of people misattribute these inaccurate details to the original source at scale.
The Mandela Effect is undoubtedly interesting and its scientific explanation is straightforward (see additional links at the end of this article). One of the authors of this article has given several interviews about the Mandela effect to news and media outlets. Shockingly, through unsolicited emails and phone conversations following these interviews we have come to learn that a nontrivial number of people hold beliefs about the Mandela Effect that fall far outside the boundaries of scientific explanation! In fact, some communications on our dissemination of scientific explanations for the Mandela Effect have been quite concerning and raise a more important social issue. For the rest of this article, we will briefly touch on science denialism in the context of the Mandela Effect where people have come to strongly endorse alternative explanations that have been proposed including parallel universes, government conspiracies, and the like.
Scientific denialism is insidious and takes many forms. This emerging problem is one that all scientists, media, and policymakers must seriously engage with immediately as it has serious implications for a variety of socially critical aspects of our collective future including climate change, inter-group interactions, political instability, and the fundamental belief that there exists a ground truth to nature. Specifically, there is evidence suggesting that people with certain negative psychological traits and motivations are more likely to develop such conspiracist ideations as acceptance of the Mandela effect, despite contrary empirical evidence. Further, these tendencies have been associated with a greater propensity for scientific denialism. Misinformation and the erosion of truth have led to a non-trivial, and vocal, portion of the population choosing to endorse alternative explanations and the Mandela Effect is a case study in this occurrence.
Where can we go from here? Psychological science has made many contributions to healthy living for people all across the world but have we done a good enough job adapting to changes in how information is communicated in a digital world? Effective research on managing this issue and on properly communicating our research findings to the broader population is increasingly needed. Teaching about false memory research in undergraduate courses where a broader representation of the population has remained elusive is not going to be enough. In this article, we have chosen to avoid giving oxygen to baseless conspiracy theories or to the people and websites that promote them. Our choice is based on our intuition that effective science communication should direct attention to the facts rather than extraordinary ideas and the characters that promulgate them.
Forty Mandela Effect Examples
A discussion about the cognitive basis for the Mandela Effect
Psychology and scientific denialism
Bowes, S., Costello, T. H., & Ma, W. (2020). Looking under the tinfoil hat: Clarifying the personological and psychopathological correlates of conspiracy beliefs. Journal of Personality, Online 1-15.
Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science, 26(6), 538-542.
Gallo, D. (2013). Associative illusions of memory: False memory research in DRM and related tasks. NY: Psychology Press.
Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Oberauer, K. (2013). The role of conspiracist ideation and worldviews in predicting rejection of science. PloS one, 8(10), e75637.
Van der Linden, S. (2015). The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 171-173.