The “Mandela Effect” is a term used to describe the phenomenon (read: conspiracy theory) wherein groups of people collectively mis-remember things, but continue to insist that their (incorrect) memories are in fact true, which may or may not be an indication that someone is messing with our reality (check out my not-yet published novel How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart for more information!). Consider the case of the Berenstain Bears, which were never ever called the Berenstein Bears; or Jiffy peanut butter, which never existed (although JIF is real); or the mis-quotation of “Luke, I am your father,” when the actual quote was “NO, I am your father.”
Now that we’ve covered basics, let’s get to the main attraction: a pre-print research paper from the University of Chicago titled “The Visual Mandela Effect as evidence for shared and specific false memories across people,” which takes a sincere scientific approach to understanding the phenomenon.
The researchers brought in 100 participants and presented them with a variety of pop culture-related images — the majority of which were altered, so as not to match the actual, demonstrable memories that people should have. The researchers then asked people to identify which images were the “real” (original, un-altered) ones, and rate how confident they were in their choice. Later, they pointed out the correct images to the participants, and asked them to study and memorize.
And both times, most of the participants chose the altered or non-canonical images. Even when they specifically studied and memorized the correct images, they still insisted that they witnessed the image being manipulated … even though they didn’t. Even more bizarre is that people tended to share the same false memories.
Here’s what the researchers found:
The occurrence of VME-errors during both short-term and long-term recall suggests that people do spontaneously generate these specific errors; VME is not a recognition-only phenomenon. Given the variability of the error frequency, it also suggests that the ease of spontaneously generating these errors may depend on the specific VME-apparent image. Furthermore, the fact that VME-errors can occur during short-term recall, despite limited familiarity with the image, could suggest that there is something intrinsic to these stimuli that encourages these errors.
While we showed that these errors are unlikely to be explained by attentional or low-level visual differences, the VME may be driven by schema-based perceptual knowledge for some icons and driven by visual experience with the non-canonical version for others.
The untested explanation for the VME relied solely on the schema theory of false memory: people are more likely to misremember details when they align with expectations of the image. While this explanation is limited, as it fails to fully explain the consistency and specificity of the VME, it may play a role in driving VME errors resulting from an incomplete perceptual experience.
The VME cannot be universally explained by a single account. Instead, perhaps different images cause a VME for different reasons — some related to schema, some related to visual experience, and some related to something entirely different about the images themselves.
And the real kicker, from the press release:
“This effect is really fascinating because it reveals that there are these consistencies across people in false memories that they have for images they’ve actually never seen,” said Asst. Prof. Wilma Bainbridge, a neuroscientist and principal investigator at the Brain Bridge Lab in UChicago’s Department of Psychology.
“You would think that because all of us have our own individual experiences throughout our lives that we’d all have these idiosyncratic differences in our memories,” Bainbridge said. “But surprisingly, we find that we tend to remember the same faces and pictures as each other. This consistency in our memories is really powerful, because this means that I can know how memorable certain pictures are, I could quantify it. I could even manipulate the memorability of an image.”
In other words, the Mandela Effect exists, and there’s no discernible reason why — except that someone is manipulating reality and altering our collective cultural memories.
The Visual Mandela Effect as evidence for shared and specific false memories across people [Deepasri Prasad and Wilma Bainbridge / Psychological Science]
Study finds widespread false memories of logos and characters, including Mr. Monopoly and Pikachu [Sarah Steimer / University of Chicago]