Let’s start by taking a short quiz. Write down your answers to the following questions. We’ll take up the answers at the end of this article.

  • In the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, what does the wicked queen say to the mirror?
  • In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, what does Darth Vader say to Luke when he reveals that he is Luke’s father?
  • What is the last line in the song “We Are the Champions” by Queen?

While these ask you for quotes from two movies and a famous song, they also effectively demonstrate the Mandela Effect.

The name of this effect comes from the time of Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Many people around the world thought he had already passed away. Prior to hearing about his death, they didn’t realize he was still alive. The basic definition of the Mandela Effect is “collective misremembering.” To scale it down from “collective,” you could also think of it as when a person has a clear memory of something that didn’t happen. Does this concept happen in today’s training? Do a significant number of your learners have some wrong information? If so, you may be fighting the Mandela Effect.

While the Mandela Effect primarily focuses on large-scale events or scenarios, it is also effective in pointing to the gaps in people’s knowledge and understanding. The Institute of Medicine published a book in 2000 called To Err is Human (see References). It looked at the costs of mistakes in the healthcare system. While there were a variety of errors recorded, gaps in training were instrumental in many of the treatment and diagnostic errors. The costs of these errors are estimated to range between $17 billion and $29 billion a year. Of greater concern are the estimated preventable deaths, which range between 44,000 and 98,000 a year. When people work with knowledge gaps, bad things can happen.

Prior to the Mandela Effect

Nelson Mandela passed away in December 2013. The term “Mandela Effect” is fairly new, but the definition is not. As educators, we know this effect has been around as long as training has been around. So what preceded the Mandela Effect? There are a number of theories written about knowledge and skill gaps that have some similarities to the Mandela Effect. The key point is the missing skills or knowledge of the learner.

In the 1970s, Noel Burch developed the “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill.” His model has now been changed to the “Four Stages of Competence” or “Conscious Competence” learning model. Figure 1 shows the competence stages.

Figure 1: Four Stages of Competence

Here is a brief outline of each of the stages.

  • Unconscious incompetence: Learners are unaware of the skill gap or what is required to do the job. They also have no knowledge or experience, leading them not to be proficient at the task. Learners new to a topic will often start here.
  • Conscious incompetence: They are aware of the missing skills and also know they don’t have the ability to be proficient at the task. It’s important to outline to learners what skills they need to acquire and why.
  • Conscious competence: Learners have acquired the skill or knowledge needed to complete a task. However, it takes effort and may require some mentoring through the process. Often, the stages to complete something will be broken down into smaller steps.
  • Unconscious competence: After much practice, learners have a thorough understanding of the skill and can perform the tasks as if they were second nature. It requires very little mental effort. A word of caution: Over time, this could lead to a Mandela Effect where the learner is confident about knowing the information, but it could be wrong. Memories do fail.

Now that you have a brief understanding of the Mandela Effect and the Four Stages of Learning Competence, let’s look at bringing these two models together.

Fixing the Mandela Effect

How do you combat the Mandela Effect in your training? One method is to find out what the learners know, or think they know, and then address the gaps. In the past we called this “test ’n’ tell.” The learners are tested on the content to determine what they know. Then, only the content that the learners didn’t know is presented. So rather than taking the same mandated compliance training every year, which may take an hour, they now get trained only on content that they didn’t know, which may take 15 minutes. The more modern name for this is “adaptive learning.”

When the “tell” portion happens is dependent on the type of adaptive learning you design (expert, student, or instructional model). Most of the time, I find the instructional model works well when trying to fill in the missing gaps or incorrect information. After testing a learner, a custom page will appear with links to content that the learner needs to learn. Once the learning is complete, learners will then take a final test to ensure they have learned all the material. That includes questions on content they already knew and didn’t have to review.

Is that enough?

While this is a good method, it can make some managers nervous when content that is known is left out. Maybe the learner just got lucky when answering the questions. That’s where “confidence-based learning” comes in. After asking learners a question, ask how confident they are in their answer. They can be “very confident,” “confident,” or “not confident.” If they’re very confident, that’s a high-risk, high-reward answer. If they’re not confident, that’s a low-risk, low-reward response. After taking a test, not only do you have the test scores, you also have the learners’ confidence scores. It’s possible that they can pass the test but have a low confidence score in a specific area. If the confidence score is low, it can lead you to believe that learners have some incorrect information or just weren’t sure if the information was correct. Now you can adapt your training to meet the specific needs of the learners.

By keeping the test score and the confidence score separate, you can estimate where the learner fits within the Four Stages of Competence. Table 1 provides a breakout of the learner’s score and confidence mark and the different stages.

Table 1: Test scores related to stages of confidence



High test score, high confidence score

Unconscious competence

High test score, medium to low confidence score

Conscious competence

Medium to low test score, high confidence score

Conscious incompetence

Medium to low test and confidence scores

Unconscious incompetence


It should be noted that adaptive learning is best suited to learners who have some knowledge of or experience with the topics being taught. Confidence-based learning can be applied to most training plans and is not only locked into adaptive learning methods.

The training plan

Any training plan needs to have a beginning and an end. The plan should also outline how to move learners through the process. Applying the Four Stages of Competence, you can create a plan to get from one stage to another. Your plan should also document which level the learner is to reach. For example, an aerospace auditor doesn’t need to know how to torque a specific bolt (unconscious competence) but needs to know what the torque value is (conscious incompetence). The editor doesn’t need the skill but does need the knowledge.

After evaluating your learner through adaptive learning, you’ll get a good idea of which stage of competence the learner is in. From there, you can apply a plan to move the learner to the identified stage of competence.

Moving forward

As previously mentioned, the term that indicates general-population knowledge gaps is called the Mandela Effect. As trainers and developers, we know that effect can also impact our training. The goal of training is to eliminate the gaps so learners can perform better and be effective in meeting compliance training. Understanding the Four Stages of Competence will help you to identify the stage the learner needs to master. Using adaptive learning, it is possible to shorten the training time. By also applying confidence-based learning, you can measure the level of confidence learners have in their understanding. The mark and the confidence score help you identify the stage where the learner is. From there, they can follow your path to reach the desired level of competence.

Now, getting back to the questions from the beginning of this article, the answers are:

  • The wicked queen does NOT say, “Mirror, mirror on the wall” but rather, “Magic mirror on the wall.”
  • Darth Vader does not say, “Luke, I am your father” but says, “No, I am your father.” 
  • Queen ends the song with “’Cause we are the champions.” Most people think “of the world” is added—but it’s not.

How did you do?


Institute of Medicine. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000.