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Critically Thinking About the Mandela Effect

Pseudoscientific explanations may be interesting but are not accurate.

The Mandela Effect, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to the misremembering of an event by a large group of people in the same way; and is a phenomenon doing the rounds online that’s actually been around for about 10 years.

The "effect" was named as such based on the discovery that many individuals online reported recalling Nelson Mandela having passed away in prison during the 1980s, when he, in fact, served as President of South Africa from 1994-1999. Other common examples include misremembering famous quotes from films (e.g. it’s "Magic Mirror on the wall…", NOT "Mirror, Mirror on the wall…"; it’s "No, I am your father," NOT "Luke, I am your father") as well as names/spellings of various pop culture characters and brands.

According to numerous "postulations" online, the various occurrences of the Mandela Effect (including the current presidency in the U.S.) result from the development of parallel universes (that, in some speculations, have been created by CERN). Specifically, the Mandela Effect is often explained via pseudoscience as a distinct effect in which such occurrences result from movement(s) between parallel universes.

The danger with pseudoscientific nonsense like this is that people bestow credibility upon such assertions because they are sometimes, in some ways, based on actual science. For example, quantum physicists have theorised the potential existence of multiple universes based on mathematical models; but, of course, there is no concrete evidence for this yet that, likewise, disproves other leading models regarding the structure of the universe. However, it nevertheless has been put forward as a possibility by genuinely credible sources.

Of course, the Mandela Effect is not particularly dangerous for people to believe in – it can be fun and interesting to look up various instances in which people misremember information from, for example, famous events, products, and films. However, another danger here is the manner in which people try to explain the mechanics behind such an effect; that is, dismissing the notion of a reasonable, science-based explanation and instead, putting faith in pseudoscientific rubbish because it provides a sensational, perhaps, "more interesting" explanation.

A critical thinker, of course, reads between the lines in the case of the Mandela Effect and looks for a more logical explanation; and one is easily found (a great example of Occam’s Razor): the Mandela Effect is nothing more than a product of false memories (i.e. a memory of something that didn’t happen or happened differently than how it was recalled) – itself a product of the Misinformation Effect. The Misinformation Effect refers to the creation of false memories as a result of interference from other/new information following the processing of information from the event in question.

Since the 1970s, Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues have conducted a large body of research on false memories and the misinformation effect. However, the examination of these phenomena began well before that, back during the development of very important theories on memory and knowledge construction.

For example, Bartlett (1932), who is often cited as being one of the first individuals to describe the concept of schemas, found that individuals misremembered information from a story they read long before, but did so in a manner that drew links – almost like educated guesses – between the correct and incorrect information. Some individuals reported that the story from Bartlett’s study was about people fishing – it wasn’t – but, because characters in the story were in a canoe, it’s not an entirely ludicrous guess for a person to make… or, perhaps, even a group of people. Likewise, was the "Berenstein Bears" a popular series of children’s books? No, but "stein" is a common feature of many surnames and "stain" is not. Thus, it’s not surprising that in many cases, when we speak about this family of bears, Berenstein is what gets pronounced, repeated, and remembered.

Likewise, Mandela didn’t die in prison as an anti-apartheid activist – he lived until 2013 and was the President of South Africa before that. However, Steve Biko was also a South African anti-apartheid activist, imprisoned during the same time as Mandela (and, arguably, was as equally famous as Mandela at the time, if not more). In this context, the only difference was that Biko died in prison and didn’t go on to become South Africa’s president. Perhaps his was the death many people recalled?

References

Bartlett, F. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Loftus, E.F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 4, 560–572.

Loftus, E.F. (1979). The malleability of human memory. American Scientist, 67, 3, 312–320.

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