KUT’s Art Markman on the Mandela Effect

I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy. A central part of the drama of these films (spoiler alert!) comes from Darth Vader’s revelation at the end of the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, that he is Luke’s father.  Since then, generations of fans have adopted their best James Earl Jones voice to say, “Luke, I am your father.” My oldest son’s name is Lucas, and when he was a baby, I would hold him up and say, “Lucas, I am your father.”

But guess what—that line isn’t in the movie. The revelation comes as part of a back-and-forth between Luke and Vader in which Luke says he believes Vader killed his father. Vader actually says, “No, I am your father.”

This phenomenon in which many people come to believe something that never actually happened, is sometimes called the Mandela Effect, named so after the false belief that many people held that activist Nelson Mandela died in prison, when in fact, he died in 2013 after serving as president of South Africa. Another example is that many people believe that the actor Sinbad played a genie in a 1990s movie called Shazaam, though he never did. This one has spawned a number of websites and Reddit threads.

So, how can so many people believe something that never happened?  After all, one way that we decide whether something is true is based on how many other people around us also seem to believe the same thing. There are three big factors that lead to the Mandela Effect.

First, people are not good at remembering the exact words that are spoken to them. Instead, they remember the gist of what they are told. In a classic experiment by John Bransford and colleagues published in the journal Cognitive Psychology in 1972, people heard the sentence “A turtle lay on a log, and a fish swam beneath them.” Later, most people given the sentence “A turtle lay on a log, and a fish swam beneath it,” believed that is what they heard, because both sentences create the same configuration of the turtle, log, and fish.

What sticks in your memory in Star Wars is that (again, spoiler alert!) Darth Vader is Luke’s father. The specific words are less important.  And the line “No, I am your father” requires a lot of setup if you are using it out of context, but “Luke, I am your father” plays pretty well.

A second source of the false belief is that we encounter a lot of information through our social network rather than—or, in addition to—experiencing it firsthand. As a result, our beliefs are shaped by the people around us.

Students in my Introduction to the Human Dimensions of Organizations class have generally not done any of their own research in history, psychology, linguistics, or other disciplines we study in class. Instead, they have to rely on the authors who wrote the papers and books they read as well as my interpretation of that work to shape their beliefs. That means their memory for the material is based on what they are hearing from other people and not their own experience.
But, later on, we often lose what psychologists call source memory. We don’t always remember exactly where we encountered information—whether we saw it or heard it or read about it or were told about it. So, years after seeing Star Wars, you remember the line, “Luke, I am your father,” because you have heard it so often from other people, and you ultimately just assume it was in the film.

Finally, our beliefs are affected by how many other people believe the same thing. We gain confidence in a belief when we talk about it with other people and they agree with you. As a kid, you might find it implausible that if you leave a baby tooth under your pillow that a tiny fairy takes it and leaves money. But, if everyone you talk to believes the same thing, then you are likely to think it is true.

Ultimately, these factors demonstrate how easy it is for you to end up believing a number of things that aren’t true. The only way you will correct them is to get feedback that what you know is wrong. For many examples of the Mandela Effect, there just aren’t that many opportunities to use the information and to find out that you’re wrong. And even when you are told that a particular belief you have is false, it is remarkably difficult to remove the influence of that belief on your memory.  There are a lot of reasons why that is the case, but I’ll save those for another column.

Illustration by Drue Wagner.




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