Hey, remember when Nelson Mandela died? In 2013? 23 years after he was released from prison? Or maybe you, like “paranormal researcher” Fiona Broome, distinctly remember Nelson Mandela dying while still IN prison, and maybe instead of simply assuming you’re an idiot who just didn’t pay attention to extremely important events in world history that directly impact millions of marginalized people on another continent, you think that this must actually be evidence that you are from an alternate universe where that DID happen, and now you’ve been thrust into this new dimension where everything is pretty much the same except that one thing. Oh and I guess in your original dimension apartheid never ended? Who knows!
A lot of other Americans with a bad understanding of history agreed with Broome, and thus was born the “Mandela Effect,” a catchall term for any mistaken memory that a person truly believes in their heart is a correct memory.
And look, yes, I am a critical thinker who has ascended beyond such conspiracy theories but I will admit that an early example of the Mandela Effect DID throw me for a loop: the Berenstain Bears. I had tons of those stupid books and read them all the time and definitely always thought “BerenSTEIN.” But when I heard it was actually “STAIN,” I looked up the books, read the wikipedia page for the authors who named the bears after their own last name, and accepted the fact that I was wrong. I am terrible with details. It’s not exactly shocking, and I don’t need to invent an entire additional universe to explain what happened here.
Research on the Mandela Effect has almost entirely been about the conspiracy theory aspect: why do people want to believe they come from an alternate dimension, or that a shadowy government is trying to retcon history by covering up a civil rights hero’s death in prison?
But a recent study, currently in preprint so NOT peer-reviewed yet but due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, looks at what might be the actual reason for so many people misremembering certain things in the exact same way. The paper involved several different experiments, some of which were more useful than others, to be honest. In the first one, they recruited 100 English-speaking Americans on Mechanical Turk and had them look at 40 image sets, each of which contained one well-known character or logo, one edited version showing a common misremembering, and one extra edit that isn’t commonly cited as a misremembering. The subjects then had to pick which one was the original, and rate how familiar they were with the character or logo and how confident they were in that choice. For instance, is the Playboy bunny naked, does he have a saucy little bowtie, or is he on the way to a meeting with the CEO?
That study suggested that seven of the images showed the hallmarks of the Mandela Effect, in that people consistently chose the incorrect image: the subjects remembered C3PO having two golden legs instead of one silver, Curious George having a tail, the Fruit of the Loom logo having a cornucopia, the Monopoly Man having a monocle, Pikachu having a black tip on his tail, the Volkswagen logo having no gaps between the letters, and Waldo from Where’s Waldo? having no cane.
In the second study they wanted to see if people just weren’t looking closely at the relevant part of those images, but tracking software confirmed that subjects did look directly at the features that were wrong before choosing the incorrect image.
In the third study they scraped Google images to see how commonly people were exposed to the features they were screwing up. They found that while some examples, like C3PO’s legs, were pretty rarely shown, others were constantly front-and-center, like the Monopoly Man’s face. So people weren’t misremembering just because they didn’t see the “correct” image often.
In the last study, they first asked subjects how familiar they were with the subject. People who said they were very familiar were asked to draw the subject from memory, and those who said they weren’t very familiar were shown the CORRECT image and then asked to draw the image immediately after they saw it. And I gotta say, some of these subjects were damn ARTISTS.
But the researchers found that some of the same Mandela Effects popped up in both groups: everybody drew C3PO with golden legs, the Monopoly man got a lot of unnecessary monocles, and Curious George had some unnecessary tails.
Let me be clear: I found exactly none of this surprising. Well, except for the artistic skill of some of the subjects. Seriously, look at this perfect Pikachu! This Monopoly Man who just screams “go directly to jail!” Impressive.
But the authors’ conclusions, that “the (Mandela Effect) cannot be universally explained by a single account” and “perhaps different images cause (the Mandela Effect) for different reasons—some related to schema, some related to visual experience, and some
related to something entirely different about the images themselves,” – yeah! Obviously! The only thing that ties these things together is that each one is what’s considered a “false memory,” but there are many ways for a person to GET a false memory. Allow me, a non-scientist dumb dumb, to go through and give you what I think is a pretty reasonable guess for what has happened with each one:
Waldo having a cane: Okay, that shouldn’t even count as a Mandela Effect because how many people are INSISTING he never had a cane and how many people just think the cane isn’t central to Waldo’s personality? As a Waldo superfan I obviously know he has a cane because that was one of the items you had to help him find and it was an important part of the Where’s Waldo lore in that a magical wizard gave it to him to help him open portals to other places, but yeah, the casual Waldo enjoyer probably wouldn’t notice.
C3PO having one silver leg is something I didn’t even notice until I saw a toy that featured it. But here’s the thing: the toy in the 1980s didn’t even have it, and I spent way more time looking at that then looking at the character on screen. And he didn’t have it in the prequels or the sequel trilogy. And in the original films, his legs are rarely shown and it’s honestly pretty subtle. So why WOULD anyone but a superfan even pay attention? Shut up, nerds!
Curious George not having a tail: he’s constantly referred to as a “good little monkey, and always very curious.” He is constantly, consistently called a monkey. And MONKEYS HAVE TAILS. “Oh but what about the Barbary macaque,” you ask. SHUT UP, NERD! But seriously, people associate monkeys with tails and frankly it’s weird that he doesn’t have one. It’s natural for people to assume he does have one.
The VW logo having a gap between the letters: it looks better without the gap. End of story. People remember it without a gap because they default to a simpler and more streamlined design. I’m actually impressed people drew that logo from memory and got it right: I would have said “Sure, I’m familiar with VW” and when asked to draw the logo I would have not even come close.
The Monopoly man not wearing a monocle: in our culture, we use a monocle as a shorthand for “out-of-touch fancy rich guy.” All things we associate with the Monopoly guy. That’s it! That’s the explanation! Our stupid tailless monkey brains take shortcuts, and so when we ask it to show us the famous fancy rich guy face it throws in a monocle. That’s it.
Pikachu not having a black-tipped tail is understandable when the most common images show his black-tipped ears near his tail. Brain shortcut: pointy pikachu things have black tips. And it looks better. Frankly, he should have been designed with the black-tipped tail.
Finally, Fruit of the Loom. This is one I find really interesting: a lot of people, myself included before I learned about all this, think the logo used to have a cornucopia behind the fruit. The company insists that this has never been in the logo and frankly they have no reason to lie unless the entire company has decided to perpetuate a massive fraud for the purpose of exploiting this phenomenon.
But if you look at the history of the logo, you can see that they’ve (correctly) made it more and more simple. Consumers don’t like or correctly remember overly complicated logos, so this has been a very common evolution for many companies over the years as the advertising industry improved their tactics. This is the logo that was around when I was a kid, and when many of the people who claim to recall a cornucopia were kids. It resembles the one from 1962 quite a bit. And in both of those logos, what the fuck is that brownish yellow stuff? Leaves? Leaves that are the same brownish yellow color as the berries? And when you see this image poorly printed using 1960s technology on your underpants, doesn’t that brownish yellow look like it wraps around the fruit? Fruit that is displayed in exactly the way that we always saw cornucopias displayed every fall? And if you just glance at that, it’s not too crazy to assume it’s a cornucopia. After all, who spends hours examining the logo on their tighty whities?
What’s especially interesting about this one is that the misremembering seems to extend back to the 70s when that logo was in use: here’s an LP from Frank Wess playing on the (incorrect) logo from 1973, and here’s a news clipping from 1994 in which a reporter interviews the “grapes” from the Fruit of the Loom commercial and mentions a cornucopia, despite the actual commercial showing the logo without a cornucopia.
So, all of that, plus maybe there were knockoff brands that DID use a cornucopia. Who knows?
My point is this: if you want to study WHY people seem to have shared delusions they independently came up with, you have to study each of those delusions as unique instances, even if they all appear on the r/MandelaEffect subreddit. Because the “Mandela Effect” is just a catchy name made up by someone who thinks ghosts are real but Nelson Mandela’s presidency isn’t, and maybe we shouldn’t assume there’s necessarily some throughline between that and a guy who is positive Britney Spears wore a plaid skirt in the “Hit Me Baby One More TIme” music video.
By the way, that one is because we associate slutty school girls with plaid skirts. There, I solved it.