I recently stumbled across a blog post discussing the idea that a lot of people think that there are 52 states in the United States of America. Apparently, the purpose of the blog, “The Mandela Effect”, is to consider why it is that different people remember the same event or historical fact differently. The blog’s author has a theory that people may have different memories because they slide back and forth between alternate realities (or something like that.) I think that the author is serious about this idea - but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure.
In the post in question, she wonders if people might think the US has 52 states because they mistakenly believe that Puerto Rico and Washington D. C. are states. She asks “is this simple confusion or a glimpse into alternate geography in another timestream?” [sic] To stimulate the conversation, she provides illuminating anecdotes from a number of readers.
I would have just left this alone, but, after a brief internet search I found that the question of 50 vs. 52 states has come up repeatedly. You can find it on Ask.com, Yahoo Answers, and even a site entitled “Debunking the Mandala Effect”. Even though I am not a cartographer, sociologist, or psychologist, I couldn’t resist throwing my ring into the hat.
As on The Mandala Effect blog, in the attempts to answer the question, “why do people think that there are 52 states”, one of the most common themes is that some people believe that Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. are states. [FYI – they aren't. At least not yet... in this time-stream. ] I find it highly unlikely that misunderstandings about Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia is the right answer. Here’s why: the intersection between the set of people that believe there are 52 states, those that know that Puerto Rico is related to the USA in some way, and those that know that Washington D. C. isn’t just a city, is vanishingly small. Here is a Venn Diagram to illustrate:
The intersection isn't zero, but it's pretty close.
Granted that my only qualification for answering this question is that I possess a functioning frontal lobe, I believe that this has more to do with two other factors. The first is visual. Here is a fairly ordinary map of the USA – the kind that people run across all the time:
If you have heard that there are 50 states, but you don’t really know much about the geography of the US, you see this big blob cut up into pieces. It is unlikely that you are going to count them. It is easy to assume that there are 50. Then there are two other sets of blobs. I doubt that many viewers think about this consciously, but, somewhere in the back of the mind, over time, it is easy to turn a blob assumed to be made of 50 pieces, plus two other blobs, into 52 states.
The second factor is the way peoples' memories work. Our brains are bombarded with vast amounts of information, some important and some not. It is normal for humans to remember approximations, unless, for some reason, they really need to know a fact with precision. If you don’t have a compelling reason to know how many states make up the United States of America, your brain is likely to store it as a fuzzy "50-ish". This would be true for a great many non-Americans, and a terrifying number of American citizens as well.
In "western” nations we have the number “52” trained into us, because there are 52 playing cards in a standard deck. This exact number is stored because you learned it while playing cards - especially if your father ever taught you “52 pickup.” (Aside: why do I say "your father" and not "a parent"? Because I don't think many mothers are that cruel, and besides, they know that they might be the one that has to "pick up.")
If someone asks you how many states there are, you may recall that it is about 50, but, of course, you want to give a precise number. Your brain’s memory systems start looking for the number. Along the way they bump into the big, bold, shiny number 52. You don’t want to appear “slow”, so as soon as you come up with a number that seems right, you use it. Fifty-two is about 50-ish, so that is the answer you give. If questioned about your answer, self-justification circuits kick in which solidify it in your mind. Also, you just heard someone say that there are 52 states. Even though that someone is you, brains sometimes don’t realize that, and furthermore, as far as your brain is concerned, you are an authoritative source. If you said something, you can believe it.