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The Mandela Effect: Why do so many people have the same false memories?

Which of these two images is correct? 

The correct answer is the image on the right. Many people misremember the title of this show as “Loony Toons”, even though it has always been spelled “Tunes”. Let’s try another one:

This one really blows my mind. I could have sworn that Pikachu had a black zig-zag at the end of his tail, but the correct image is actually the one on the right. One last example is a well-known quote from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie. Do you remember the witch saying the words “mirror, mirror on the wall”? That is how it is often quoted but the real line in the movie was actually “magic mirror on the wall”. Pretty crazy right? 

This phenomenon is called the Mandela Effect and it is when a large group of people collectively remember that something happened or looked a certain way, when, in reality, it never did. It was named the Mandela Effect by Fiona Broome, who had a vivid memory of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela, dying in the 1980s in prison, even though he lived until 2013. She soon discovered that, strangely enough, many people also believed that he had been dead for years. This led to the discovery of many other cases of mass false memories, such as the examples above of Pikachu and the Monopoly Man. 

So how is it possible that so many people can misremember the same thing? Cognitive psychology can provide an explanation for this phenomenon. The Mandela Effect is primarily due to a cognitive function called false memory. This is when we remember events that never happened or introduce errors and distortions into memories of certain experiences. These false memories can seem very real and vivid in one’s mind even though they are entirely incorrect.

An infamous example of false memory is a study done by Deese, Roediger, and McDermott, better known as the DRM paradigm. This was a study in which participants were first told to study a list of words. Then, they were shown words and asked if they were “old”, meaning they had studied them on the previous list, or “new”, meaning they had never seen them before. Many participants recognized something called a “critical lure” that was never on the list but was related to all of the studied words. For example, if participants studied the words “citrus”, “apple”, “juice”, and “pear”, they may also recall seeing the word “fruit” even though it was never on the list. This is similar to the phenomenon of the Mandela effect because it displays how we are able to create a memory for something that we never actually saw. 

More specifically, the Mandela Effect is an example of something called “collective false memory”. This is when a large group of people collectively quotes a saying a certain way or remembers an event a certain way, when, in reality, they are all remembering the same thing incorrectly. 

Another way in which cognitive psychology can explain the Mandela Effect is through the sins of memory. One of these “sins” is suggestibility, which is when suggestions or statements from others can alter our memory without us realizing it. This applies to not only altering memories but also creating entirely new false memories. This could be one explanation for the Mandela Effect because if you constantly hear people misquote a line from a movie, like “mirror, mirror on the wall”, then it might alter your memory and cause you to remember the line incorrectly as well. 

Interference is another cognitive function that relates to the Mandela Effect. Many studies have shown that our memories continuously disrupt one another through interference. They can be disrupted by our past experiences or newly obtained information. False memories are then created as a result of interference from either the new information or other past memories. This phenomenon could provide an explanation for the reason that so many people around the world misremembered the death of Nelson Mandela. Steve Biko, who was also a South African anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned at the same time as Mandela and died in prison. It is possible that people heard this information and interference with their knowledge about Nelson Mandela, the more well-known imprisoned South African activist at the time, led them to create a false memory about Mandela’s death. 

There is another, more specific, aspect of the Mandela Effect called the Visual Mandela Effect. This refers to the internet phenomenon in which people consistently share false memories for specific images. Here are a few examples: 

You may remember the Monopoly man as wearing a monocle, but the image on the right is actually the correct logo and he has never been depicted wearing a monocle.

Another example is the Fruit of the Loom logo which many people, including myself, believe has always depicted the fruit coming out of a cornucopia, but, in reality, the image on the right is correct and there has never been a cornucopia in the logo. 

A study was done by Prasad and Bainbridge to further investigate the Visual Mandela Effect. They tested whether certain images of highly familiar cultural icons trigger the same false memories across a group of participants. In the study, 100 participants were presented with 40 different images. Three versions of each image were shown: the original image and two slightly manipulated versions. Participants were then asked to choose the “real” version of the image based on prior knowledge. They were also asked to rate their confidence in their choice and familiarity with the concept of the image. Interestingly, researchers identified seven images in which a specific manipulated version was chosen significantly more often than the correct version or the alternative manipulated image. For these images, participants also consistently rated their confidence and familiarity as medium to high. This is an important study because it shows that there are certain images of familiar cultural icons for which people consistently make the same false memory errors, even despite having seen the real image. 

The fact that so many people all around the world can share the same false memory is something that I have always been fascinated by. The images of Looney Tunes, the Monopoly man, and the “mirror, mirror on the wall” quote are things that truly blew my mind because I misremembered all of them. There is still much research to be done on the Mandela Effect and the cognitive psychology surrounding it, but it is clear that false memory, suggestibility, and interception play a role in this phenomenon. 


Critically Thinking About the Mandela Effect. (2020). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/202001/critically-thinking-about-the-mandela-effect

Deepasri Prasad, Wilma A. Bainbridge; The Visual Mandela Effect: Evidence for specific shared false memories in popular iconography. Journal of Vision 2021;21(9):2121. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.21.9.2121.

Good Housekeeping Editors. (2019, August 6). 45 Mandela Effect Examples That Will Blow Your Mind. Good Housekeeping; Good Housekeeping. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/g28438966/mandela-effect-examples/

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric annals, 25(12), 720-725.

Nall, R. (2020, March 13). The Mandela Effect: How False Memories Occur. Healthline; Healthline Media. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/mandela-effect

Phelan, J. (2022, March 19). What is the Mandela effect? And have you experienced it? Livescience.com; Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/what-is-mandela-effect

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