False Memories Are Very Common — and Can Even Be Collective

a pastel portrait of Nelson Mandela
Image by Ariel Quiroz / CC BY

One of the most exciting takeaways from empirical psychological research has been the study of memory. In particular, the study of false memories.

The body of work on this area is huge, and many researchers have taken a stab or two. But most notably, Elizabeth Loftus pioneered a series of studies into memory beginning in 1974 that completely revolutionized our collective understanding of memory and how accurate — or inaccurate — it is.

In sharp contradiction to the lay beliefs at the time, Loftus established that eyewitness testimony is often prey to mistakes. And that it’s actually fairly easy to unduly influence recall based on the way we ask a person about their experiences.

Yikes.

This predictably had huge legal implications — ones that are frankly still being sorted out.

In addition to these sorts of false memory effects, there’s also a very common collective false memory phenomenon called Mandela Effect.

The Mandela Effect

Mandela Effect was named after Nelson Mandela. This is because many people began to believe that Mandela had not only died in prison in the 1980s but that there had been a move about him starring Denzel Washington. In truth, Mandela lived until 2013.

In fact, it was Steve Biko, one of Mandela’s contemporaries, who was the subject of the Denzel Washington film — Cry Freedom. And while Biko didn’t die in the 1980s, he died in the late 70s (1977), a good deal closer to what many people commonly believed.

This mixup has been attributed to the fact that anyone formally studying apartheid typically learned about Biko and Mandela side by side, and as Mandela was the more well known/famous of the two, much of what was learned about Biko was mistakenly transferred over to Mandela.

In addition, other collective mixups of a more minor nature are quite common: Many people remember The Berenstain Bears as being The Berenstein Bears. Froot Loops as being Fruit Loops, etc.

Why Does This Happen?

Some people doggedly insist that Mandela effect is proof of an alternative dimension, one in which these other facts are true, things are slightly different, etc.

Me? I suspect it’s just another manifestation of the fallibility of memory. And that the errors being so common and predictable (approaching universality) is more indicative of the uniform methods we all tend to use to store and process information than anything else.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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