This saw Coan give his family members short narratives describing childhood events. One, about his brother getting lost in a shopping mall, was invented. Not only did Coan’s brother believe the event occurred, he also added additional detail. When cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, Elizabeth Loftus, applied the technique to larger samples, 25% of participants failed to recognise the event was false.
When it comes to the Mandela Effect, many examples are attributable to so called “schema driven errors”. Schemas are organised “packets” of knowledge that direct memory. In this way, schemas facilitate understanding of material, but can produce distortion.
Frederic Bartlett outlined this process in his 1932 book Remembering. Barlett read the Canadian Indian folktale “War of the Ghosts” to participants. He found that listeners omitted unfamiliar details and transformed information to make it more understandable.
This process is called “effort after meaning” and occurs in real world situations too. For instance, research has previously shown how when participants’ recall the contents of a psychologist’s office they tend to remember the consistent items such as bookshelves, and omit the inconsistent items – like a picnic basket.
Schema theory explains why previous research shows that when the majority of participants are asked to draw a clock face from memory, they mistakenly draw IV rather than IIII. Clocks often use IIII because it is more attractive.
Other examples of the Mandela Effect are the mistaken belief that Uncle Pennybags (Monopoly man) wears a monocle, and that the product title “KitKat” contains a hyphen (“Kit-Kat”). But this is simply explained by over-generalisation of spelling knowledge.
Back to reality
Frequently reported errors can then become part of collective reality. And the internet can reinforce this process by circulating false information. For example, simulations of the 1997 Princess Diana car crash are regularly mistaken for real footage.
In this way then, the majority of Mandela Effects are attributable to memory errors and social misinformation. The fact that a lot of the inaccuracies are trivial, suggests they result from selective attention or faulty inference.
This is not to say that the Mandela Effect is not explicable in terms of the multiverse. Indeed, the notion of parallel universes is consistent with the work of quantum physicists. But until the existence of alternative realities is established, psychological theories appear much more plausible.
Neil Dagnall, Reader in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University and Ken Drinkwater, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Cognitive and Parapsychology, Manchester Metropolitan University