Think you have a good memory? Forget it


Think you have a good memory? Forget it

The Mandela effect is a term that refers to the general phenomenon of remembering things that never happened or existed. Throw in the effect of social media, writes psychologist LOUIS AWERBUCK, and we are left with a cloudy, subjective interpretation of reality.


REMEMBER the Monopoly man? The uncle with the top hat and moustache who is so much a part of the famous board game's brand? He wears a monocle as part of his outfit, right?

Wrong. If you remember the Monopoly man with a monocle, you are probably experiencing the phenomenon that has become known as the visual Mandela effect, namely the shared, collective belief that a false memory is true.

This effect was named after events surrounding former president Nelson Mandela's death. He passed away at his home in 2013, but many people believed he died in custody sometime in the 1980s. The visual Mandela effect (the term was first used in 2009) recently gained scientific status when researchers at the University of Chicago published a paper about it. People consistently and frequently remember “wrong" visual impressions, they found.

Even if you remember the Monopoly man with a monocle (image A), the correct brand is image C.
Even if you remember the Monopoly man with a monocle (image A), the correct brand is image C.  

Oddly enough, it was found that the visual Mandela effect is even stronger when a false image is remembered that has never actually been seen. Moreover, it seems most people are confident about the accuracy of what they falsely remember and are not inclined to accept that their memory is false.

It is not so simple to explain why people so easily cling to false visual images of the past. This is not because individuals look at certain visual representations differently. Research shows that even when people look at the correct visual information, many of them tend to remember the incorrect option.

It is also not necessarily true that we transform visual information in our memory based on our emotional associations with it. This form of memory formation is known as scheme theory and assumes that people remember the Monopoly man's monocle because a monocle is traditionally associated with wealth.

Further complicating matters is that we apparently often remember the same faces, images and impressions as other people. Because our own experience differs so drastically from other people's, one would expect individual differences to be reflected in how we remember, but this does not seem to be the case. So it is not difficult to create or manipulate false memory. The implication of this is clear in how photos, brands and visual images are selected and displayed in the media and what effect they have on people's memory and therefore their beliefs.

False memory

Many behavioural scientists argue that the Mandela effect arises largely as a result of a cognitive function called false memory. This refers to the common phenomenon of remembering things that never happened or existed, or adding erroneous information when recalling and remembering.

An important study on false memory in 1995 led to what is known as the DRM-paradigm. It was named after the researchers Deese, Roediger and McDermott and offers a further explanation for the Mandela effect. The researchers asked participants to study a series of words, then gave them another series of words to classify. Participants had to indicate whether words in the second series appeared in the first, or whether they were “new". 

Many participants mistakenly “remembered" words in the second series as if they had appeared in the first. Virtually all of the falsely remembered words were related to certain words from the first series. For example, if participants first studied the words “citrus", “apple", “juice" and “pear", many of them recalled the word “fruit" even though it didn't appear in the first series.

This research also found that the false memory participants developed as a result of the study lasted for up to 60 days.


Studies from cognitive psychology also explain the Mandela effect by referring to the impact of suggestion. Strong or persistent suggestion can change your memory without you realising it,  even create new false memory.

A famous example of this is how the phrase, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" from the Disney film Snow White (1937) is recalled. The quote in the film was: “Magic mirror on the wall".

Likewise, the name of the HBO series is Sex and the City, not Sex in the City; and Darth Vader never said, “Luke, I am your father",  simply, “No. I am your father".

A further cognitive function that plays a role in the Mandela effect is a process called interference. This refers to how people's memory can be clouded by events in the past, or by new information. This phenomenon may explain why so many overseas people wrongly remember the date of Mandela's death. Steve Biko was also a well-known activist and was also imprisoned, but died in custody. It is speculated that these events are connected to Mandela, and that this obfuscation has led to the false memory surrounding his death.

Forget to remember

Contrary to what people would like to believe, the general accuracy of memory is nothing to write home about. Most studies find that more than 70% of adults make at least one significant error every time they are asked to recall information. And they will even argue about it, because people are generally very uncomfortable with the thought that information from their memory, and therefore their reality, could be wrong.

If false information is repeatedly presented as the truth, it can easily form part of one's memory, even if this information becomes even more erroneous as time passes. The more individuals confirm erroneous information, the more this information becomes part of a collective reality, confirming to other people with similar associations that their interpretation is correct.

It is therefore almost impossible to identify and recognise a false memory unless you are confronted with undeniable counter-evidence, and even then it can be a cognitive struggle to assimilate the new, correct information.

Important choices are made based on the interpretation of so-called “true" events that erroneously live in people's memories and have characteristic consequences. For example, faulty memory often plays a determining role in people being accused of misdemeanours and crimes such as sexual molestation, and in them being wrongly convicted and sentenced based on the memory of eyewitnesses. (By the way, it is generally believed that children's versions of reality based on their memory are more unreliable than those of adults because we expect children to be more prone to suggestion and therefore more susceptible to developing false memories. But research shows this is not necessarily the case, and that under certain circumstances children are less likely than adults to reproduce false memories.)

The implications of the shaky reliability of people's memory are obvious. There are insufficient adjectives to describe the effect the internet and social media exert on the distribution of information, and therefore what is formed in people's memory as reality. Recent results of a 10-year study on the discussion of news reports (more than 100,000 reports were taken into account) on Twitter clearly showed that lies, rumours and conspiracy theories beat facts time and again. By about 70%.

It is common knowledge that people believe what they want to believe. Add to this the unreliability and suggestibility with how we recall reality, mix it with the strong flow of distorted and interpreted information we are bombarded with digitally, and the result is a murky, subjective interpretation of reality that is at best loosely based on questionable memory and interpretation of facts.

♦ VWB ♦

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