False Memories and the “Mandela Effect”
What do Nelson Mandela, New Zealand, and The Berenstain Bears all have in common? They’re all the focus of a number of collective false memories.
Image adapted by the author from “Emmanuel ARGO et Nelson MANDELA” by Scalabrune via Wikimedia Commons (used under CC BY-SA 4.0), “New Holland including New South Wales” (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons, and “The Berenstain Bears Sick Days” by Schu via Flickr (used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Cropped and merged from originals.
In the 1980s Nelson Mandela died in prison. Following his death, scenes from his funeral appeared on news broadcasts internationally, and there were widespread mourning and riots across South Africa.
Despite this, a substantial number of people, such as Fiona Fitzgerald Broome of mandelaeffect.com, have clear memories of viewing news reports detailing Mandela’s passing in the 1980s. This phenomenon of people sharing a memory of an event that seemingly didn’t occur was dubbed the “Mandela Effect” by Broome. However, Mandela’s death isn’t the only memory that this effect applies to.
The “Berenstein” Bears and Other False Memories
The Berenstain Bears is an American children’s book series written by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Thousands of people around the world have argued that the series (as well as the author’s surnames) used to be spelt Berenstein. These people ardently maintain that they remember, as clearly as any of their childhood memories, that they would read books about the Berenstein Bears, written by Jan and Stan Berenstein.
A 2006 study analysing false memories found that 36 out of 100 respondents claimed having memories of seeing footage of the 2002 Bali Bombings, despite no footage of the attack ever existing. There have also been a number of people claiming that they remember New Zealand being closer to or on the other side of Australia than what it is now, or that the United States of America has more than 50 states.
The Mandela Effect as Evidence of Parallel Dimensions?
There are a number of simple explanations for people possessing these apparently false memories. Misspellings caused by the fact that -stein is a much more common name ending than -stain, a misunderstanding of news reports on Nelson Mandela in prison and the 2002 Bali Bombings, or someone seeing a particularly bad or misleading map of Oceania in their youth. All of these things could lend themselves to the unintentional construction of false memories.
However, adherents of the Mandela Effect suggest an alternative hypothesis; that those who hold these memories have inherited them from a parallel dimension, an alternate timeline, or from a glitch in the Matrix. They argue that because identical “false” memories are held by so many people all around the world, they cannot be dismissed, and there must be a deeper underlying reason for their existence.
The Psychology of False Memories
In reality, false memories are very common, and are of particular interest to psychologists. In 1990 Psychologist Dr Elizabeth Loftus published a paper on how false memories arise and are formed. Their study demonstrated how easily people can be misled by misinformation, and how they can be convinced that they experienced something that never happened by the power of suggestion. Although this study focused on constructing false memories in others through deception, it’s understandable how individuals could convince themselves of having false memories. Psychologists use the term “confabulation” to refer to this distortion or fabrication of memory without deception. Often, people convinced of having false memories can defend them with remarkable confidence, even when presented with evidence of their non-existence.
For example, someone who once viewed a Berenstein typo as a child could have convinced themselves that it had always been Berenstein, or someone viewing two separate news stories (for example, one about Mandela in prison and one about someone’s passing) could end up conflating the two events in their memory, especially when they’re seeing hundreds—or even thousands—of other people online saying that they have similar memories.
The Mandela Effect demonstrates how confident some people can become in false memories, especially when they’re shared by other people from around the world. Even if you might remember Berenstain actually having a third ‘e’, the chances are you don’t have memories from an alternate timeline. It’s more likely that you read a typo when you were young, or you’re simply misremembering. In these situations, it’s a good idea to remember Occam’s Razor: “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”