The Mandela Effect and your imperfect memory

Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.

CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

If you haven’t heard of it, the Mandela Effect is a conspiracy theory that uses the shared false memories of multiple people as a jumping off point for outlandish ideas about alternate realities and diverging timelines. While initially appearing to be an interesting thought experiment, the most cursory exploration reveals it to be profoundly retarded.

That, or it’s a big joke that everyone in the world but me is in on. Which would be a more credible conspiracy theory than anything about the Mandela Effect.

The two most popular instances of the ME are these:

  • Nelson Mandela, the face of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, died in prison in the 1980s, long before his election as the country’s first black president in 1994 and actual death in 2013.
  • The popular children’s book series “The Berenstain Bears” was actually called “The Berenstein Bears”.

So the idea is that everyone who thought Mandela died in prison is from an alternate timeline where he did, and everyone who thought it was “Berenstein” is from an alternate timeline where it was. The main website provides a long list containing many other examples.

Probably the biggest thing that biased me against this whole business going in was my nationality. As a South African, I can assure you that no-one here thinks that Nelson Mandela, our first black president and a giant figure in recent history, died in prison in the 80s. That would have had a massive impact on the end of apartheid and beginning of universal suffrage in the early 90s. I mean, he was literally the president of the country from 1994–1999.

Shockingly, this particular false memory mostly afflicts people who self-admittedly know nothing about South Africa or its politics. So either all these people come from an alternate universe, or their memories are conflating some combination of the following:

I think it’s reasonable that someone with only a very scant and cursory knowledge of the South African situation in the 1980s could have conflated these events and others (a funeral seen on television, a lesson on South Africa and Mandela in school, the slogan “Free Mandela”) to believe Mandela had died in prison. There’s nothing striking or strange about any of the generic “remarkably similar details” multiple people claim to remember.

The Berenst(a/e)in thing also seems dubious. -stein is a common family name affix, and -stain is not. So writing or remembering “Bearenstein” is entirely rational and logical, even if it’s incorrect. Beyond that, it’s a single letter, and e/a are pretty similar-looking as letters go.

Gotta be careful with these spelling mistakes, or I might end up in another universe!

Gotta be careful with these spelling mistakes, or I might end up in another universe!

Despite the two most discussed instances of the Mandela Effect being pretty obviously stupid, I was prepared to give the ME the benefit of the doubt and look into the other examples. But pretty soon I realised that every single instance of the so-called Effect falls into one of two categories:

  • People being extremely insistent about historical events involving people and things they will in the same breath admit to knowing literally nothing about, like the Mandela thing.
  • People being extremely insistent about extremely minor differences in the spelling of words, the colours of things or particular dates, like the Berenstein thing.

Let’s go through a few examples (taken from this page):

Challenger shuttle explosion date? 1984, 1985, or 1986? Winter or another time of year? (Per Wikipedia, it was 28 Jan 1986.) Also, alternate memories about the Columbia.

Sometimes people get numbers and exact years confused. Did the Cuban Missile Crisis happen in 1962 or 1961? Did The Simpsons start airing in 1989 or 1990? Did the Titanic sink in 1912 or 1913? Were Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms as US president 1888–1892 and 1896–1900 or 1884–1888 and 1892–1896? Google it, and if you’re wrong, it’s because you guessed wrong or misremembered it, not because you’re from a different timeline.

Ghost Hunters TV show — Some remember the earliest show name as TAPS, not Ghost Hunters. (Yes, we know the real-life team is called TAPS, and some of their gear has always said that.)

Well obviously that’s why you falsely remember the show as being called TAPS, right? Because “TAPS” is in a prominent place on the ghost-hunting team’s stuff. It’s like when people think a song is named after its most repeated lyric – which it often is, making this a reasonable way to guess a song’s name, but might not be.

Jif or Jiffy Peanut Butter – Jif peanut butter was never called “Jiffy,” in this timestream. (Not confused with Skippy brand, either.)

Again, this answers itself. Mental merging of the names of the two biggest peanut butter brands in the world. Probably also something to do with the word “jiffy”.

Mother Teresa – A saint before 2016? Several recall her canonization in the 1990s. They also recall her name spelled “Theresa.”

Saint Teresa of Jesus was canonised in 1993. And Theresa is a reasonable variant spelling of Teresa. You probably saw it misspelt somewhere, or saw the name Theresa somewhere, or had a friend named Theresa, and internalised that particular spelling.

New Zealand’s location, relative to Australia.

Different map projections exist. And the precision of your memory w.r.t precise visual co-ordinates probably isn’t as great as you think it is.

September 22nd or 23rd? – Some people recall events shifting from one of these dates to another. (The reaction to this article — on- and off-site — has been disproportionate to its apparent minor importance.)

Same as the Challenger thing.

Tiananmen Square – Memories of a young man being run over by a tank. (Might be Mandela Effect issue or simple media manipulation.)

The iconic Tiananmen Square picture is of a man standing in front of a tank. Not a great stretch of the imagination to think he was run over shortly after the picture was taken (he wasn’t).

tiananmen square tank man

The tank swerved.

Fidel Castro – Still alive (per Wikipedia in early 2016), but some recall a 2011 death.

Probably confusing him with Osama Bin Laden.

And I don’t even want to go into the minutiae of whether Mr Rogers sang “this” or “the”, whether the quote from Field of Dreams was “If you build it, (he/they) will come” or any of those other things that are obviously mondegreens and beam me ups. How credulous do you even have to be?

But none of this would be so bad if so many of those involved weren’t so insistent about the unassailable correctness of their memories. False memories are a known phenomenon, the classic example being that everyone has the memory of getting lost in a shopping centre as a child even if they never did. Our memories are not (at least in the case of most people) lossless recordings, meticulously dated and cross-referenced. Events run together, small details merge, and false memories are produced.

A personal example: I remember watching the twin towers fall on television on 11 September 2001. My strongest and most vivid memory of this is that I watched the footage on the television in a house my family only moved into in November 2002. The obvious conclusion being that I’ve conflated memories of watching television at that more recent house with memories of watching 9/11. Not that I’m from an alternate timeline where the attacks happened on, say, 9 November 2002.

But let’s put that aside for the moment. The official ME line seems to be something like “maybe my memories are wrong, but isn’t it interesting that so many people’s memories are wrong in the same way – it must be more than a coincidence, right?”

Well, no, not really. As I’ve explained above, all of these “eerily similar” mass false memories are entirely reasonable, logical and fairly boring mistakes or long-ago conflations of the only couple of facts someone knows about a given subject. Many of the actual reasons behind them are given on the very page that lists them, but blithely passed over in a blind desire to believe. Even the most interesting and elaborate ones are pretty clearly just conflations of different things that have been through a few years of enthusiastic positive reinforcement in online discussion forums.

mike shoes

This was definitely a brand name in my home universe.

At least The Flat Earth Society have arguments that amount to more than “I remember it like that you guys honest!!!” Now there’s a conspiracy theory I can respect.

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