Would you believe us if we told you the most famous line of 1980’s Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was never uttered? Darth Vader doesn’t reveal his paternity to Luke Skywalker by saying, “Luke, I am your father.” He actually says, “No, I am your father.” The line is but one instance of what blogger Fiona Broome dubbed the “Mandela Effect” a decade ago, after she learned that a number of people shared her erroneous belief that human rights activist Nelson Mandela had perished in prison in the 1980s. (He died a free man in 2013.)
With apologies to conspiracy theorists, the idea of a shared false memory isn’t proof of alternate realities. It’s simply a product of how our brain works to retrieve information. “What we know about false memory is that it arises through the reconstruction process,” Gene Brewer, Ph.D., an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Arizona State University, tells Mental Floss. “When you recall an event, you use memories around it, taking elements or pieces of other events and fitting them where they make sense.”
Take a look at 15 of the more prevalent examples of things that people swear are real but are merely a product of the brain’s imperfect recall.
For decades, Rich Uncle Pennybags (or Mr. Monopoly) has been the de facto mascot for Monopoly, the board game that somehow made real estate exciting. Some insist Pennybags completes his top hat and business attire ensemble with a monocle, but that’s not true. He’s never worn one. People appear to be conflating his depiction with that of Mr. Peanut, the Planters mascot who sports a single corrective lens. That’s because our brain can easily take subjects with similar traits and blend them together. “In studies, when you show participants word pairs and ask them to remember blackmail and jailbird, half of them will later say they remember learning the word blackbird,” Brewer says.
If you looked forward to your school lunch break because your parent or guardian packed a Jiffy peanut butter sandwich, your childhood may be a lie. While both Jif and Skippy brands have lined store shelves, there’s never been a “Jiffy” brand. “They may have had a false memory by incorporating elements in the reconstruction process of Jif and Skippy,” Brewer says. “Now that’s encoded in their memory, and the false memory is what they’re remembering. They don’t remember the experience of seeing it but the experience of falsely remembering.”
The tense meetings between imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) fueled 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, based on the Thomas Harris novel. “Hello, Clarice” has become a default line reading for people looking to emulate Hopkins’s creepy Lecter. But the killer never says the line in the movie. Instead, he says “Good morning” when meeting Starling for the first time. People remember Lecter greeting Starling and remember him saying “Clarice” in a melodic tone, creating a false memory of a classic non-quote. “Your memory can try to recreate things based on available evidence using context cues,” Brewer says.
Some people have a fond recollection of a cornucopia of fruit on the label inside this popular brand of underwear. But the fruit was never spilling out of a basket: It was always illustrated as a pile of food. “The more exposure we get to things like advertising, the more memories for things become decontextualized,” Brewer says. In other words, people who remember the cornucopia might not have a distinct memory of pulling on a pair of briefs and seeing it. “They remember fruit was involved, and then begin to think, ‘Well, how is fruit usually portrayed? Okay, maybe a cornucopia.’ That’s reconstruction.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting is among the most famous works of art in recorded history. So why do so many admirers insist the demure subject of the portrait is frowning instead of correctly describing her with a smirk? Brewer can’t say for certain, but conjuring an image of the painting might involve filling in the blanks with segments of other paintings. “It would be interesting to look at the statistical frequencies of frowns, not smiling, or smiling in paintings,” he says. “Maybe people are just taking the statistical regularity of the [art] environment. People get exposed to a lot of art where people aren’t smiling.”
Do you recall The Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon showing up on doorsteps to hand people oversized checks and balloons because they struck it rich in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes? McMahon never made any house calls. He endorsed American Family Publishers. While the entities were similar, McMahon never appeared on camera as part of the Prize Patrol. It’s an example of what Brewer refers to as source confusion: You may remember a detail like McMahon appearing on television but not the source—in this case, a rival sweepstakes promotion.
The Berenstain Bears have been imparting life lessons for children in a series of illustrated books since 1962. The bears are even named after their creators, Stan and Jan Berenstain, meaning the name appears at least twice on the book covers. So why do some readers insist it’s spelled “Berenstein”? It’s likely due to the fact kids may have seen the name misspelled in newspaper articles or in handwritten references from other kids or adults. According to Brewer, it’s a bit of a self-perpetuating problem: “There were studies in the 1980s that showed when students were exposed to misspelled words in an education setting as a way to test their spelling proficiency, the misspelled words got recorded in their memory and interfered with their ability to spell the words correctly in the future.”
The Mandela Effect is strong in Star Wars fans, who sometimes err in quoting the film’s dialogue but also recall protocol droid C-3PO as having a gold-plated chassis. And he does—with one notable exception. The lower portion of his right leg below the knee was silver when we first saw him, a fact that sometimes surprises people who have seen the original trilogy dozens of times. “People trying to reconstruct an event are taking whatever information they can, which can mean glossing over things or making inferences,” Brewer says. Unless you stared at the droid’s leg, you probably just assumed he was the same color all over.
Remember Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear, a dress shirt, and Ray-Bans while home alone in 1983’s Risky Business? Your brain got most of it right. If you watch that now-iconic scene again, you may be surprised to see Cruise isn’t wearing sunglasses. The mistake likely comes from seeing Cruise in the shades in other scenes or in the film’s advertising material. “When you watch a movie, it’s a big chunk of information,” Brewer says. “And a lot of things happen in that chunk. When you go back to recreate it, you’ll get interference from other things that happened in the movie.”
The most startling example of the Mandela Effect? The widespread belief that an entire feature film exists titled Shazam (or Shazaam) starring actor and comedian Sinbad as a genie. What people are recollecting is probably Kazaam, a 1996 comedy starring NBA great Shaquille O’Neal as a wish-granting mystical figure. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Sinbad appeared in several children’s films in the 1990s. One of them, First Kid, reportedly had a preview for Kazaam on the VHS release, which could have strengthened the tendency to reconstruct the actor as starring in it rather than O’Neal. This one is so convincing even Brewer himself says he’s caught himself “remembering” it.
Popping in a Disney VHS tape or DVD was a rite of passage for millions of kids in the 1980s and 1990s—some of whom recall an animated Disney logo in which Peter Pan co-star Tinkerbell flies in to dot the I in Disney with her wand in the foreground, while the Disney logo appears in the background. Others insist Tink writes out the entire word; yet another version has Tink getting upset and shaking her wand to get it to work; still another sees Tink “bopping” the top of the Disney castle. One amateur sleuth appeared to excavate an old VHS introduction (above) which seems to match the description, though Tink uses fairy dust, not a wand, and doesn’t “write” the logo with it. Others believe that Tink practiced her skills in front of the modern Disney logo and that true evidence of Tinkerbell’s sleight of hand has yet to be revealed.
The inquisitive children’s book character was created by H.A. and Margret Rey in 1939 and proceeded to have a number of adventures in print and on television. But Curious George should reserve his concern for his own anatomy. Despite what many readers may remember, he’s never depicted with a tail, which is typically a hallmark of monkeys (save for the Barbary macaque).
Running from 1966 to 1969, Star Trek has become one of the defining franchises in science fiction. While William Shatner’s portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk is indelible, at least one iconic and oft-quoted line has fallen victim to poor recall. Kirk never says “beam me up, Scotty” in the series, referring to chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan). Instead, he uttered variations, including “Scotty, beam us up” and “beam us up.”
Since 1944, the U.S. Forest Service has utilized mascot Smokey Bear to caution against forest fire risks. And for an equal number of years, people have referred to the amiable ursine as Smokey the Bear. In actuality, there’s no “the.” It’s just Smokey Bear. People may have simply gotten used to the “the” in characters like Winnie the Pooh, Oscar the Grouch, or fellow civil servant McGruff the Crime Dog.
Few album covers are as iconic as Born in the U.S.A., the 1984 record by Bruce Springsteen. The cover, which features Springsteen’s posterior against an American flag, is sometimes remembered for the red bandana hanging from his back pocket. But it’s not a bandana—it’s a red baseball cap.
The title track is also a source of confusion. Despite the widely-held assumption it’s a patriotic tune, Springsteen wrote it as a protest song about the futility of the Vietnam War.
Should these processes that lead to false memories be considered flaws? Not exactly. Current theories in psychology are exploring the idea that our ability to cull details from past experiences to create theoretical concepts is actually part of a survival mechanism. “Taking episodes from our past allows us to construct possible futures and anticipate those events,” Brewer says. “It makes us adaptive to new environments.” Like living in a world without Jiffy.
For more information on the Mandela Effect, check out our video covering all things misremembered on The List Show.
A version of this article ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.