Many of us have heard of the Mandela Effect, a term used for mass memory failure where large groups of people misremember information. Named after Nelson Mandela, the concept behind the effect took off from many people claiming to remember that Nelson Mandela died in prison, while in reality he lived for a decent amount of time after being released from prison, even becoming president after being released. While most Mandela Effects are very minor, such as misremembering a name or remembering the Monopoly mascot holding a moneybag while he wasn’t, some like the Mandela Effect regarding Nelson Mandela himself are somewhat disturbing to think about. While most of the Mandela Effect could be attributed to misinformation or retroactive memory, it is interesting to ponder even beyond that about how one could be led to believe a man died far before he truly did, especially when he went on to become a president. But surely, this only applies to somewhat minute details of our lives, or ones that hardly effect us right?
Unfortunately, that isn’t what the studies show. Largely, what has been shown with memory is that our memory, while it can sometimes serve us very well at being accurate for a long time, it can also begin to degrade very quickly- and no one is certain of the reasons why. The assumption is that a combination of genetics, working memory at the time, consolidation, retroactive interference, and external factors such as stress or misinformation can alter the accuracy of people’s memories. While some people can accurately recall particularly moving events for a long time (called flashbulb memories), studies have shown that many begin to misremember these events not long after they occur. One strong overlap between the Mandela Effect and strong memory failure is related to the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. Many people claimed to have seen the recordings of the first plane hitting one of the towers, while in reality no such video had been released immediately after the attack. One study showed that about a third of people surveyed a year after the events of 9/11 were not reporting the same memories they had immediately after the event. Three years after the event, that number went up to 43%. In addition to this, the mean reported confidence in memory of these surveys was about a 4.4 on a 5 point scale. Research with memories and events causing PTSD have also pointed towards similar findings, that even such traumatic events are often not accurately remembered. So what can we do to prevent memories from being misremembered? Ultimately, there are probably very few things one can do in attempts to prevent this. Reflecting on confirmation bias, researching information in an attempt to avoid misinformation effects and availability heuristics may help, but in the long run nothing can point us towards trusting or mistrusting any particular memories that someone may have. Any studies done researching factors regarding memory validity have shown little to no correlation, whether it be from confidence, emotion, detail, or even response speed.
While our brain for the most part does a fantastic job at remembering all it needs to and there’s no reason for worry that we misremember something incredibly important, its important to remember that some things fall through the cracks. For this reason, steps should be taken to ensure that no one person’s failure in memory might negatively impact the livelihood of another individual, as memory does make mistakes.