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Mandela Effect

Testing the Visual Mandela Effect

False memories for common cultural icons.

Key points

  • This effect is a kind of social false memory for cultural icons, but it isn’t due to a lack of attention.
  • Expectations for how an image should look drive some, but not all, of the visual Mandela effect.
  • Some cultural icons are more susceptible to this visual effect, suggesting it may be due to the image itself.

Let’s see how well you know these familiar icons from Western popular culture:

  • Does the Monopoly man sport a monocle?
  • Does Curious George have a tail?
  • Does the Fruit of the Loom logo feature a cornucopia?
  • Does Pikachu’s tail have a black tip?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have fallen victim to the visual Mandela effect.

The Mandela effect refers to a false memory shared by many people. The term was coined in 2010 by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, who discovered that many other people shared her false memory that Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s. Broome explained this and other examples of shared false memories in terms of alternative timelines crossing in parallel universes, but psychologists prefer the more reasonable explanation that these are simply examples of false memories and social contagion.

The Mandela effect has become a hot topic on the internet over the last decade, and it’s prompted a number of psychologists to study the phenomenon as well. In a recent article published in the journal Psychological Science, University of Chicago psychologists Deepasri Prasad and Wilma Bainbridge explored the visual Mandela effect for cultural icons such as the Monopoly man and Pikachu.

The Visual Mandela Effect Isn’t Due to Lack of Attention

In a series of experiments, Prasad and Bainbridge investigated the tendency to form false memories of common cultural icons.

In the first experiment, they selected 40 cultural icons, such as cartoon characters and brand logos, and made two altered images of each. For instance, they modified the original Monopoly man by adding a monocle in one altered image and by adding eyeglasses in the other. They then showed all three images to research participants, who had to choose the correct one. The respondents also indicated their degree of familiarity with the icon and their degree of confidence in their choice.

Of these 40 cultural icons, five passed the criteria for the visual Mandela effect, namely that an overwhelming majority selected the same incorrect image, and that they reported high familiarity and confidence. These five cultural icons were: C-3PO from Star Wars, the Fruit of the Loom logo, Curious George, the Monopoly man, Pikachu, and the Volkswagen logo.

In the second experiment, Prasad and Bainbridge used eye-tracking software to test whether perceptual or attentional issues could account for the visual Mandela effect. They did this by comparing eye movements as participants viewed the five icons that had elicited the visual Mandela effect in the first experiment with those of five icons that previous respondents had identified correctly. After viewing the correct version of each image, the participants were asked to choose which of two images was correct. For instance, they viewed the Monopoly man without a monocle, and then they had to choose between the one with and the one without the monocle.

The researchers found no significant differences in looking patterns between the items the participants got correct and incorrect. In other words, the visual Mandela effect wasn’t due to a lack of attention. Furthermore, the last image they’d seen was the canonical version, so it’s unlikely they were confusing it with some non-canonical version they’d seen elsewhere. Familiarity ratings couldn’t account for the Mandela effect, either.

Expectations and the Visual Mandela Effect

In the third experiment, Prasad and Bainbridge culled images from the internet to see how common Mandela-effect versions of popular icons are, and whether this could explain the visual Mandela effect. Indeed, Mandela-effect versions can be found on the web, particularly on sites discussing the Mandela effect. However, the vast majority of images were canonical.

Despite this, many of these images were cropped, such that the aspect subject to the Mandela effect was missing. For instance, the canonical image of C-3PO has a silver lower right leg. But most images of the robot featured only his head and torso.

The most common explanation for the Mandela effect is schema theory. That is, we have expectations about how things should look, which we incorporate into our memories of items. For instance, we all know that the Monopoly man is a wealthy, older gentleman from the early twentieth century. We also know that such people often sported a monocle as a sign of their upper-class membership, so we incorporate the monocle into our visual memory of the Monopoly man.

Mandela Effect Essential Reads

In the case of C-3PO, schema theory works perfectly. Since people rarely see his legs, they generally assume they’re both gold in color, like the rest of his body.

But schema theory fails in other cases. For example, many people think Pikachu’s tail has a black tip. This is in spite of the fact that the Pokémon creature is almost always displayed with its yellow tail in full view. Of course, one could argue from schema theory that because Pikachu’s ears have black tips, people may be misremembering the tail as black-tipped, too.

Some Cultural Icons Are More Susceptible to the Visual Mandela Effect

Psychologists distinguish between recognition, which is a passive form of memory retrieval, and recall, which is its active counterpart. So far, Prasad and Bainbridge have tested the visual Mandela effect using recognition tasks. But in their final experiment, they examined whether the effect occurs in recall as well. Participants first viewed the canonical image and then were asked to draw it from memory.

Nearly half of all the images the participants drew included elements typical of the visual Mandela effect. For instance, many people drew Pikachu with a black tip on its tail, even though there wasn’t one in the canonical image they’d just seen. The researchers concluded that there must be something intrinsic to certain images that encourages the visual Mandela effect. What exactly that is, though, will have to wait for further research.

The Mandela effect arose as a hot topic on the internet over a decade ago. Although many netizens explained it as a paranormal phenomenon, cognitive psychologists have seen it as an opportunity to study the processes involved in forming false memories. And even though there’s nothing paranormal about the Mandela effect, it still feels spooky because of how vivid these false memories can be.


Prasad, D. & Bainbridge, W. A. (2022). The visual Mandela effect as evidence for shared and specific false memories across people. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/095679762211

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