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What is the Mandela Effect? The history and science of the mind-bending phenomenon

Most people will have experienced the Mandela Effect at some point, have you?


Colette Fountain

Pop Culture

Posted on Feb 1, 2024   Updated on Feb 2, 2024, 4:48 pm CST

Most people will have experienced the Mandela Effect at some point.

For many, it might be misremembering a celebrity death, a historical event, or, most surprisingly, a quote from their favorite movie. For me, it was being convinced Michael Jackson was dead long before he actually was.

What is the Mandela Effect?

Paranormal researcher Fiona Broome coined the term “Mandela Effect” in 2009 to describe her experience of misremembering the death of Nelson Mandela.

Broome believed Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s when he actually died in 2013. 

After realizing others thought this, Broome began using the term to describe beliefs or events that are widely held to be true despite having no grounding in reality.

How does the Mandela Effect work?

In an email to the Daily Dot, Dr. Neil Dagnall, Associate Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, described the phenomenon as “instances where people’s collective recall of an event is contrary to reality.”

It has spawned conspiracy theories about parallel universes and time travel, yet the reality is more likely a common psychological error similar to false memory. One psychological study found that 76% of people made an error when recalling information. 

In a call with the Dot, Danny Zane, a therapist and counselor from Therapy North London, spoke about his experiences with the Mandela Effect. One example Zane recently discovered was Tony’s Chocolonely, the cult favorite chocolate brand. Zane, his friends (and this reporter) had mistaken it for Chocoloney, a brand name that seems to make much more sense because it not only rhymes, but also has better connotations than the real “lonely” ending.

Why the Mandela Effect is a near-universal experience

“The phenomenon stems from incorrect memories,” Zane said. “How the mind pulls together information, unlike a DVD, it’s not recorded and set in stone. It has to collect it and gather it and put it together when it’s reaching in. That’s complex, so it doesn’t always come out the right way.

“We can re-fragment incorrectly,” he continued. “We all have an unconscious bias, so there’s a way we want to remember things… within our own unconscious that connects to our own beliefs and values.”

This involves remembering the information in a way that makes the most sense to us, whether with brand names that rhyme or more common phrasing of quotes.

The difference between Mandela Effect and conspiracy

Zane was keen to highlight the difference between the Mandela Effect and conspiracy theory. With the Mandela Effect, there is no proof to back up the misinformation, nothing online to suggest that the brands, or history, ever happened any differently.

For conspiracy theory, it’s more of an outright rejection of fact, freely available online and in real life. He said, “It’s not the same as something like Holocaust denial. You can’t have a Mandela Effect of something that’s widely documented with lots of evidence.”

Broome is relieved to see the Mandela Effect become part of public discourse, moving away from fringe conspiracy theories to instead “encourage calm, genuine conversations.”

Similarly, Dagnall encourages people to “always adopt a critical, enquiring perspective.”

Bologna Centrale Clock

Like the term’s origin, examples of collective false memory are often tied to history as time periods get confused.

One example of this is Italy’s Bologna Centrale railway station clock. A 2010 survey found that 92% of locals believed the clock had not been repaired following a 1980 neo-fascist terrorist attack.

In reality, it had been repaired shortly after the attack and functioned normally for around 17 years until it became a commemorative clock displaying the same time as the attack. This misremembering was likely caused by the familiarity of historical events, combined with the conflating of different events.

Similarly, the mistaken belief that Mandela died in the ‘80s might be a mix-up with the death of activist Steve Biko in 1977 as people incorrectly fill in the gaps in their memory. Biko, like Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid activist at the forefront of the Black Consciousness Movement of the 60s and 70s. Biko died on 12 September 1977 following police brutality.

Dagnall said, “Confabulations occur when gaps in memory are automatically filled by inaccurate information. These distortions draw on existing knowledge.”  

Zane suggested that the emotion and trauma caused by the terrorist attack might be a factor that affects memory, making it difficult to replace the false memories with real ones even with the frequency locals saw the clock.

Looney Tunes

In the popular MandelaEffect subreddit, a common false memory among its nearly 300,000 members is the title of the hit children’s show Looney Tunes, not Looney Toons as so many people seem to remember it being.

This confusion seems understandable given the lack of musical relevance within the show and might explain the similar Mandela Effect where Froot Loops are misremembered as Fruit Loops. 

It seems that consumers do not give their full attention to the products they are buying and can easily misremember specific spelling, particularly when their version seems more logical.

Double Stuf Oreo 

Again, marketing companies seem to have got it all wrong as the ever-popular, extra-thickness Oreos are often referred to as ‘double stuffed’ rather than their correct ‘Double Stuf.’

It seems that it doesn’t always pay off for brands to take a risk with introducing new or unusual spellings for their products.

“Luke, I am your father”

Even diehard fans of Star Wars might get caught up in the Mandela Effect from Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back. Arguably one of the most famous quotes from the franchise, Darth Vader actually says, “No, I am your father.” The line is commonly misremembered as “Luke, I am your father.”

It’s not the first time that movie buffs have been victim to the phenomenon, with Snow White’s “Mirror, mirror on the wall” becoming a false memory replacing the real “magic mirror on the wall.” Zane admitted to misremembering the Queen’s phrase, saying “I always thought I knew what it was.”

Another common Mandela Effect is Forrest Gump’s “life was like a box of chocolates” becoming “life is like a box of chocolates” in collective memory.

So, whether it’s an intentional marketing campaign, a slip-up in a film fanatic’s quote, or a historical event, it seems that we’re all capable of misremembering important details as our memory tries and fails to correctly fill in the blanks.

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*First Published: Feb 1, 2024, 9:30 am CST