10 Examples of the Mandela Effect
Would you believe us if we told you the most famous line of 1980’s Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was never uttered? Darth Vader doesn’t reveal his paternity to Luke Skywalker by saying, “Luke, I am your father.” He actually says, “No, I am your father.” The line is but one instance of what blogger Fiona Broome dubbed the “Mandela Effect” a decade ago, after she learned that a number of people shared her erroneous belief that human rights activist Nelson Mandela had perished in prison in the 1980s. (He died a free man in 2013.)
With apologies to conspiracy theorists, the idea of a shared false memory isn’t proof of alternate realities. It’s simply a product of how our brain works to retrieve information. “What we know about false memory is that it arises through the reconstruction process,” Gene Brewer, Ph.D., an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Arizona State University, tells Mental Floss. “When you recall an event, you use memories around it, taking elements or pieces of other events and fitting them where they make sense.”
Take a look at 10 of the more prevalent examples of things that people swear are real but are merely a product of the brain’s imperfect recall.
1. The Monopoly Man’s Monocle
For decades, Rich Uncle Pennybags (or Mr. Monopoly) has been the de facto mascot for Monopoly, the Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) game that somehow made real estate exciting. Some insist Pennybags completes his top hat and business attire ensemble with a monocle, but that’s not true. He’s never worn one. People appear to be conflating his depiction with that of Mr. Peanut, the Planters mascot who sports a single corrective lens. That’s because our brain can easily take subjects with similar traits and blend them together. “In studies, when you show participants word pairs and ask them to remember ‘blackmail’ and ‘jailbird,’ half of them will later say they remember learning the word blackbird,” Brewer says.
2. Jiffy Peanut Butter
If you looked forward to your school lunch break because your parent or guardian packed a Jiffy peanut butter sandwich, your childhood may be a lie. While both Jif and Skippy brands have lined store shelves, there’s never been a “Jiffy” brand. “They may have had a false memory by incorporating elements in the reconstruction process of Jif and Skippy,” Brewer says. “Now that’s encoded in their memory, and the false memory is what they’re remembering. They don’t remember the experience of seeing it but the experience of falsely remembering.”
3. “Hello, Clarice”
The tense meetings between imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling fueled 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, based on the Thomas Harris novel. “Hello, Clarice” has become a default line reading for people looking to emulate Anthony Hopkins’s creepy Lecter. But the killer never says the line in the movie. Instead, he says “Good morning” when meeting Starling for the first time. People remember Lecter greeting Starling and remember him saying “Clarice” in a melodic tone, creating a false memory of a classic non-quote. “Your memory can try to recreate things based on available evidence using context cues,” Brewer says.
4. The Fruit of the Loom Label
Some people have a fond recollection of a cornucopia of fruit on the label inside this popular brand of underwear. But the fruit was never spilling out of a basket: It was always illustrated as a pile of food. “The more exposure we get to things like advertising, the more memories for things become decontextualized,” Brewer says. In other words, people who remember the cornucopia might not have a distinct memory of pulling on a pair of briefs and seeing it. “They remember fruit was involved, and then begin to think, ‘Well, how is fruit usually portrayed? Okay, maybe a cornucopia.’ That’s reconstruction.”
5. A Frowning Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting is among the most famous works of art in recorded history. So why do so many admirers insist the demure subject of the portrait is frowning instead of correctly describing her with a smirk? Brewer can’t say for certain, but conjuring an image of the painting might involve filling in the blanks with segments of other paintings. “It would be interesting to look at the statistical frequencies of frowns, not smiling, or smiling in paintings,” he says. “Maybe people are just taking the statistical regularity of the [art] environment. People get exposed to a lot of art where people aren’t smiling.”
6. Ed McMahon and the Publishers Clearing House
Do you recall The Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon showing up on doorsteps to hand people oversized checks and balloons because they struck it rich in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes? McMahon never made any house calls. He endorsed American Family Publishers. While the entities were similar, McMahon never appeared on camera as part of the Prize Patrol. It’s an example of what Brewer refers to as source confusion: You may remember a detail like McMahon appearing on television but not the source—in this case, a rival sweepstakes promotion.
7. The Berenstain Bears Fail a Spelling Bee
The Berenstain Bears have been imparting life lessons for children in a series of illustrated books since 1962. The bears are even named after their creators, Stan and Jan Berenstain, meaning the name appears at least twice on the book covers. So why do some readers insist it’s spelled “Berenstein”? It’s likely due to the fact kids may have seen the name misspelled in newspaper articles or in handwritten references from other kids or adults. According to Brewer, it’s a bit of a self-perpetuating problem: “There were studies in the 1980s that showed when students were exposed to misspelled words in an education setting as a way to test their spelling proficiency, the misspelled words got recorded in their memory and interfered with their ability to spell the words correctly in the future.”
8. C-3PO’s Golden Moment
The Mandela Effect is strong in Star Wars fans, who sometimes err in quoting the film’s dialogue but also recall protocol droid C-3PO as having a gold-plated chassis. And he does—with one notable exception. The lower portion of his right leg below the knee was silver when we first saw him, a fact that sometimes surprises people who have seen the original trilogy dozens of times. “People trying to reconstruct an event are taking whatever information they can, which can mean glossing over things or making inferences,” Brewer says. Unless you stared at the droid’s leg, you probably just assumed he was the same color all over.
9. Risky Business
Remember Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear, a dress shirt, and Ray-Bans while home alone in 1983’s Risky Business? Your brain got most of it right. If you watch that now-iconic scene again, you may be surprised to see Cruise isn’t wearing sunglasses. The mistake likely comes from seeing Cruise in the shades in other scenes or in the film’s advertising material. “When you watch a movie, it’s a big chunk of information,” Brewer says. “And a lot of things happen in that chunk. When you go back to recreate it, you’ll get interference from other things that happened in the movie.”
10. Kazaam, not Shazam
The most startling example of the Mandela Effect? The widespread belief that an entire feature film exists titled Shazam (or Shazaam) starring actor and comedian Sinbad as a genie. What people are recollecting is probably Kazaam, a 1996 comedy starring NBA great Shaquille O’Neal as a wish-granting mystical figure. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Sinbad appeared in several children’s films in the 1990s. One of them, First Kid, reportedly had a preview for Kazaam on the VHS release, which could have strengthened the tendency to reconstruct the actor as starring in it rather than O’Neal. This one is so convincing even Brewer himself says he’s caught himself “remembering” it.
Should these processes that lead to false memories be considered flaws? Not exactly. Current theories in psychology are exploring the idea that our ability to cull details from past experiences to create theoretical concepts is actually part of a survival mechanism. “Taking episodes from our past allows us to construct possible futures and anticipate those events,” Brewer says. “It makes us adaptive to new environments.” Like living in a world without Jiffy.