James Felton

Study Finds Mandela Effect Is Real and Incredibly Hard to Explain

If you’ve spent too much time on the internet (or on the internet from a parallel universe before jumping into this one), you might have heard of the Mandela Effect. Named after people who poorly remember Nelson Mandela’s death, the term is given to any collective false memory.

Examples include films that never existed, such as shazaam featuring Sinbad, or the fact that Fruit of the Loom never used a cornucopia in their logo.

A team of psychologists from the University of Chicago – intrigued by the idea – decided to subject it to real scientific rigor. In addition to testing if there really was an effect, they aimed to find out why Visual Mandela Effects (VME) were happening. The results were kind of maddening.

In their first experience – currently available in pre-print prior to publication in the journal Psychological Science – participants were asked to view images of a logo, character or mascot, including popular examples of the Mandela Effect and others that had been added as controls. In addition to the original “true” version of the image, they have included several other versions with errors, designed to fit the original design as closely as possible. This included popular versions that were poorly remembered.

Participants were asked to select the image they believed to be the original, as well as rate how confident they were that it was correct and estimate the number of times they had seen it. The image was only considered a potential VME if it was consistently misremembered, people were sure of their choice, and the same bad image was consistently selected. Interestingly, in questions that used examples of the Mandela Effect commonly cited on the Internet, the misremembered image was selected “a significantly higher proportion” of the time than the original.

“These results indicate that these seven images (C3PO, Curious George, the Fruit of the Loom logo, the Monopoly Man, Pikachu, the Volkswagen logo, and Waldo from Where’s Waldo?) not only had sub-random accuracies, but also versions specific errors that have been falsely recognized as the original,” the team wrote in their post. “Thus, these seven images were labeled as ‘apparent VME’.

“Furthermore, their accuracy is surprisingly low given the familiarity and trust people had with these images,” they added.

So far, so weird. Then the team showed the participants the correct images and asked them to study them, without explaining that they would be asked to recall information about the image they saw. When asked to choose between the correct version and a manipulated version, the VME images were always consistently decided on the correct version they had just studied.

“This low accuracy for the VME image set is remarkable, given that participants had just seen the correct image minutes before during the study phase, but still chose the wrong version to indicate their memory,” wrote the team.

When asked about their choice, those who selected the correct image said things like “they only saw the fruit, not the cornucopia”, while people who selected the VME image also said that they remember seeing the manipulation moments ago. (in this example, the cornucopia) even if they hadn’t.

“In fact, incorrect responses to apparent VME images were more often attributed to memory of the manipulated feature (66.54%) than those to corresponding non-VME images (44.92%), which instead tended to be more based on guesses.”

From this part of the experiment, they concluded that a popular source image (for example, if there was a popular image of Pikachu with a black tip added to the tail, which it usually doesn’t but which people considered canonical) was not the explanation for the Mandela visual effect “because the non-canonical version of the earlier experience is unlikely to outweigh their recent experience of the canonical image”.

One idea that might explain why people make the same mistakes is “schema theory” which suggests that people fill in missing information (for example, they can’t remember exactly what the Monopoly Man looks like) with information based on our expectations and associations (slapping a monocle on him in our minds, as he is known to be incredibly wealthy).

However, this theory fails with many VMEs. In one experiment (main image), participants were asked to select the correct Fruit of the Loom logo from the VME version, the correct version, and one with a manipulation.

“They could have chosen the right Fruit of the Loom logo, the Fruit of the Loom logo with the cornucopia or the Fruit of the Loom logo with a plate underneath,” co-writer Deepasri Prasad said in a statement. Press. they chose the cornucopia rather than the plate, when plates are more frequently associated with fruit, is evidence against the idea that it is just the theory of patterns that explains it.

Disappointingly, or perhaps just curiously, the team found no real explanation for the constant errors. In another experiment, participants were asked to draw the logos and characters, and always reproduced Curious George with a tail, Pikachu with a black tail, and the Loom logo fruit with a cornucopia.

“Evidence suggests that some people may make consistent memory errors, even with extensive viewing experience of the icon and without having experienced variations before,” they write in their discussion.

“In sum, we have revealed a set of images that elicit consistent and shared false memories between people, prompting new questions about the nature of false memories. We show that VME cannot be universally explained by a single account. instead, maybe different images are causing a VME for different reasons.”

Or – hear us out – the participants have changed worlds, and don’t know it yet.

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