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.

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.

Except that this never happened. In reality, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, was elected President of South Africa in 1994, and passed away in December 2013.

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.


Further Reading:


6 Responses to “False Memories and the “Mandela Effect””

  1. Rebecca Smith says:

    Funny – I thought you would detail a conspiracy about the map of New Zealand you have pictured here being “incorrectly” drawn as when it was first mapped out “Banks Island” was thought to be an island – which it isn’t…or perhaps it was? Coincidence?

  2. James Spyrou says:

    Thanks for the replies Sarah and Heather! It definitely has a lot in common with mass hysteria. It’s amazing how far people can fool themselves into believing something despite clear evidence to the contrary!

    I agree, Umer! I believe that the power of suggestion underpins much of the field of marketing, and power over memory is an effective tool in advertising.

    Rob, clearly you’re remembering my post from the alternate timestream!

  3. Umer says:

    I for one am pretty sure that this human trait is being vastly misused. The social media, news organisations and politicians know about this and hence use it as tool for social engineering. No! I am not a conspiracy theorist or tinfoil head. Recent “Fake News” epidemic is partly possible because of this very human trait.

  4. Rob Dabal says:

    Strangely enough on first reading I thought you wrote “The Mandela Effect as Evidence of Parallel Delusion”, wasn’t till I read it a second time that I picked up what was actually written……did anyone else have the same experience?!

  5. Heather Smillie says:

    Such a crazy and interesting blog topic! I love weird stories like this.
    Conspiracy theorists must love this!! hahaha
    Thanks for the blog!

  6. Sarah Nielsen says:

    The brain can be such a weird dude! It’s quite fascinating how the brain can interpret information and twist it into a new version of events, and take the power of suggestion to convince you that something is real. Reminds me a lot of mass hysteria, where a group of people can experience symptoms of a disease or illness, where no actual disease exists. The power of the mind!