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Mandela Effect Believers Just Can’t Admit When They’re Wrong

Your sense of memory is just as bad as everyone else’s

Human memory is full of holes. Our recollection of the past, as one group of cognitive scientists put it, “is not an exact reproduction of past experiences but is instead an imperfect process that is prone to various kinds of errors and distortions.” On the whole, it’s probably an evolutionary advantage that memories can be altered over time: Having a brain that remembers literally everything in precise detail can be a tremendous burden, and relying on generalized reminiscence rather than objective history — the difference between so-called “gist” and “verbatim” memory — can improve our net accuracy. The mind is fallible, but highly adaptable.

But try telling any of that to anyone who’s fallen down the rabbit hole of the Mandela Effect, a purported phenomenon that over the last decade has drawn a sizable mass of true believers. The premise is this: When a group remembers something that conflicts with the official record, that’s the Mandela Effect. Common sense (and a passing familiarity with the nuances of cognition as outlined above) would lead most of us, in such a case, to decide we were wrong. No big deal. But in 2009, when writer and paranormal researcher Fiona Broome found that others shared her incorrect memory of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s — really, he was released in 1990, served as president of South Africa and died in 2013 — she established, and with it a community to crowdsource more of these alternate truths.

A few years later, one of these examples, the common assumption that the children’s book series is titled The Berenstein Bears instead of The Berenstain Bears, went viral; by 2013, Reddit had a dedicated forum, which now has close to 200,000 subscribers and proposes several instances of the effect each day, with users looking for the fellow faithful to validate their glitchy memories. The Mandela Effect is the basis for a poorly reviewed 2019 sci-fi thriller, and there are even conferences where leading theorists and obsessives meet to discuss their experience — a 2019 event held in Ketchum, Idaho, was documented in the HBO series How To with John Wilson.

The popularity of this hobby is owed in part to the far-out explanations that some have offered, especially the notion that we can “slide” between parallel timelines or universes with divergent features. Yet this ongoing speculation, which Broome herself insists is only for fun and amusement, serves another, less obvious (but far more annoying) agenda.

It’s not that I can’t entertain the notion of overlapping realities, and I don’t begrudge any discussion of remembered specifics that turn out to be illusory — in fact, lots the anecdotes on r/mandelaeffect receive pushback from skeptical commenters who recall the subject correctly and come up with plausible reasons the original poster is mistaken. My complaint is that so many still want every last thing, every little brain fart or synaptic misalignment, to be one more instance of the Mandela Effect, and will try to seed the false memory in their peers.

All this takes, as psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown, is “repeatedly being asked to imagine” these scenarios, which is exactly how the Mandela Effect forums operate. If you mentally added a middle-finger gag to the end of the horror film Child’s Play, you should accept that and move on with your life, not rush to the internet to encourage everyone else to share in your misapprehension.

Oh, you thought the U.S. had a total of 52 states? It doesn’t! Too bad!

Not only are they incapable of admitting they’re wrong, they covet the prestige of maintaining their chosen fact in defiance of all pressure to give it up as nonsense. It’s as if they see themselves as a bunch of brilliant Galileos, declaring that the Earth revolves around the sun even though it’s bound to piss off the Vatican. There is open self-aggrandizement in hinting that you belong to a magical subspecies that can toggle between worlds and preserve a faultless archive of data from the one you started out in.

And why, despite its namesake, are allegations of the Mandela Effect usually so boring? At least half of them focus on the design of junk food logos, like the typography of the dash in the brand name “Coca-Cola.” You can swear up and down that you’re sure it used to be the other way, but I know you just never paid that much attention in the first place. Why would you? It doesn’t matter how your cereal is spelled.

All I ask is that the Mandela Effect crusaders pause, take a deep breath and be quiet for a while. You’ve run this concept into the ground; the mischievous charm it had is spent. Quit flattering yourselves as the keepers of a secret history, and maybe ask yourself how you can be so certain of the trivial ephemera that are most likely to get mixed up in the muddle of your imperfect memory. I promise, it’s okay that you mistakenly thought the Monopoly man wears a monocle; you don’t have to reinvent quantum physics to feel better about it. You can’t always be right. None of us are!

And if we ever get proof that the Mandela Effect is real, I’ll take the L — or go back and edit this post so it looks like I was on your side from the beginning.