See if you can guess which movies the following quotes came from:

Did you say 1) Casablanca, 2) Field of Dreams, 3) Star War: The Empire Strikes Back, 4) Star Trek, and 5) Snow White? If you did, congratulations, you got 0 out of 5 correct. What you just experienced though was a fascinating phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect.

The Mandela Effect is a term that describes a kind of collective misremembering, such as the memory that many people have that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s rather than in 2013 after spending five years as president of a post-apartheid South Africa.

Many people also remember New Zealand as being north or west of Australia. In fact, it’s Southeast of the land down under, as you can confirm for yourself on any globe or Google Maps.

Have you ever eaten Fruit Loops cereal? What about Jiffy peanut butter? Did you read the Berenstein Bears as a child? In fact, the sugary cereal is (and was) named Froot Loops, and while Jif peanut butter is (and was) a popular brand, Jiffy never existed. And those stories about bears were meant to teach us about right and wrong, they were about the Berenstain family.

To some, these discrepancies between our memories and reality are evidence of parallel universes, shifting timelines, or glitches in the matrix. And indeed, these effects are disconcerting to many of us. But their explanation likely lies not in reality having changed in some spooky way, but rather in some of the fundamental properties of how the memory works.

Nearly a century ago, Bartlett (1932) demonstrated that human memory is not akin to a video or audio recording. Rather we often remember the gist of a story, in his case an unfamiliar Native American folktale about ghosts, rather than accurately recalling all of its details.

In one experiment, Bartlett had participants read a folktale for the first time and then asked to recall it with as many details as possible, in some cases at a delay of several minutes, in others after several years. Bartlett found that people tend to omit or change many of the story’s details, and to do so in a way that seemed to make more sense to the participants.

Later work by Elizabeth Loftus (Loftus & Palmer, 1974), confirmed that our memories are often malleable, especially when it comes to small details. Loftus had participants watch a video of the same car accident and then asked them whether there was broken glass in the video. Before answering the question about broken glass, some participants were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when the smashed into each other?” Other participants were asked “about how fast the cars were going when they hit each other” or were not asked about the cars’ speed.

Compared to the other two groups, those asked about the cars having “smashed,” were more likely to report seeing broken glass in the video of the accident, despite no broken glass being present.

Our memories, it seems, are far from perfect, especially for the details. If our minds tweak these details to help them fit our existing schemas, then perhaps this is why we remember Fruit Loops and Berenstein Bears. “Froot” is an incorrect spelling, and the name “Berenstain,” sounds more unusual than “Berenstein.”

Consistent with this idea, studies by Deepasri Prasad and Wilma Bainbridge (2022) find that most people believe that Curious George was depicted with a tail. In fact, much to my surprise, he was not. Why might we make this error? Perhaps because of what we know about real monkeys, that they tend to have tails.

Another piece of the puzzle is that the number of details we remember from a given event declines with the passage of time. In a recent study, Diamond and colleagues (2020) interviewed people who had either been given training in fitting a respirator mask at a hospital or a tour of the hospital’s art museum. They asked them to describe the experience in as much detail as possible. Then, several years later, they had participants repeat the description task.

Although freely recalled details tended to be quite accurate, they were not perfectly so. And, the total number of details recalled declined to less than half of those remembered immediately after the event in question. Many examples of the Mandela Effect refer to events that supposedly occurred in the past or to experiences from our childhoods when most of us were at peak cereal and peanut butter consumption.

At the beginning of this piece, you encounter several quotes that seem to come from famous films. In fact, each of these quotes was incorrect. In Casablanca, Bogart never asks Arthur Wilson to “play it again, Sam,” but he does say, “Play it.” And in Field of Dreams, the actual line is, “If you build it, he will come.” In both cases, the real quotes are quite close to what most of us believe them to be.

Many of them are referred to in other films or pieces of writing. Or even in parodies of the original film, such as 1972’s Play It Again, Sam, starring Woody Allen.

In a similar vein, many people remember a 1990 children’s film starring the African-American comedian Sinbad as a genie called Shazam. No such movie existed, although a 1996 film called Kazaam starred the African-American athlete and actor Shaquille O’Neil as a genie named Kazaam.

Further, Shazam was a popular comic about a hero with magical powers, published by Fawcett and later by DC Comics. Sinbad is also the name of a heroic, fictional sailor from the Middle East who had a number of supernatural adventures. So, the Sinbad-starring Kazaam is likely another example of conflation, where a number of correct details get a bit muddled in our memories, or a muddled version of the actual past sounds plausible because it is a pastiche of many actual memories or events.

This may also help to explain why so many of us have similar incorrect memories. If you have a moment, either draw or picture in your mind’s eye the Monopoly Man. Does he have a monocle? In fact, the iconic figure from the Parker Brothers game does not. But many of us incorrectly remember him as having one.

In one of a series of studies by Prasaad and Bainbridge (2022), when they showed the correct image to participants who reported being unfamiliar with this logo, and then asked them to draw what they had seen, nearly 1 in 4 drew the figure with a monocle and for those that reported being familiar with the logo researchers asked them to draw him without first providing an example.

In this case, nearly 1 in 2 gave him a monocle. One possibility is that schemas, a top hat, spats, and a bushy mustache seem like they would “go” with a monocle. Another is that people may conflate this character with another famous top-hat-wearing icon, Mr. Peanut.

Another reason why these misquoted movie lines at the beginning of this story likely feel like they are the right ones is that we’ve likely heard them more often than the real ones. In their study of heuristics, they examined the mental shortcuts that we often use to make judgments and decisions in daily life. Kahneman and Tversky (1974) found that we often mistake how familiar a piece of information feels for the likelihood that it is correct.

Do Mandela Effects show that you are living in a glitchy computer simulation? Or that time travel has changed the past? Or that you have somehow jumped to a divergent timeline? Maybe, but it’s more likely that these kinds of mistaken memories instead reveal surprising truths about how the human mind works.

Our memory for small details tends not to be great. And it gets worse as time goes by. We rely on schemas to organize our experiences and understanding of the world and often use familiarity to indicate accuracy. We also can conflate pieces of knowledge and different experiences, creating plausible, yet inaccurate collages like Kazaam the movie.

References

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge university press.

Diamond, N. B., Armson, M. J., & Levine, B. (2020). The truth is out there: Accuracy in recall of verifiable real-world events. Psychological Science, 31(12), 1544-1556.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(5), 585-589.

Prasad, D., & Bainbridge, W. A. (2022). The Visual Mandela Effect as evidence for shared and specific false memories across people. Psychological Science, 33(12), 1971-1988.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases: Biases in judgments reveal some heuristics of thinking under uncertainty. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.

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The Psychology Behind the Mandela Effect

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06.12.2023

See if you can guess which movies the following quotes came from:

Did you say 1) Casablanca, 2) Field of Dreams, 3) Star War: The Empire Strikes Back, 4) Star Trek, and 5) Snow White? If you did, congratulations, you got 0 out of 5 correct. What you just experienced though was a fascinating phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect.

The Mandela Effect is a term that describes a kind of collective misremembering, such as the memory that many people have that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s rather than in 2013 after spending five years as president of a post-apartheid South Africa.

Many people also remember New Zealand as being north or west of Australia. In fact, it’s Southeast of the land down under, as you can confirm for yourself on any globe or Google Maps.

Have you ever eaten Fruit Loops cereal? What about Jiffy peanut butter? Did you read the Berenstein Bears as a child? In fact, the sugary cereal is (and was) named Froot Loops, and while Jif peanut butter is (and was) a popular brand, Jiffy never existed. And those stories about bears were meant to teach us about right and wrong, they were about the Berenstain family.

To some, these discrepancies between our memories and reality are evidence of parallel universes, shifting timelines, or glitches in the matrix. And indeed, these effects are disconcerting to many of us. But their explanation likely lies not in reality having changed in some spooky way, but rather in some of the fundamental properties of how the memory works.

Nearly a century ago, Bartlett (1932) demonstrated that human memory is not akin to a video or audio recording. Rather we often remember the gist of a story, in his case an unfamiliar Native American folktale about ghosts, rather than accurately recalling all of its details.

In one experiment, Bartlett had participants read a folktale for the first time and then asked to recall it with as many details as possible, in some cases at a delay of several minutes, in others after several years. Bartlett found that people tend to omit or change many of the story’s details, and to do so in a way that seemed to make more sense to the participants.

Later work by Elizabeth Loftus (Loftus &........

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