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It may be President’s Day, but most past presidents have faded from our collective memory

After naming the first three or four U.S. presidents, people had trouble recalling the names of presidents in the order they’d served.

Pictured in January 2009, left to right: former President George H.W. Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton and former President Jimmy Carter.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It’s Presidents Day, but how many U.S. presidents do you actually remember?

As reported late last year in the journal Science, most Americans have a very poor memory for the names of presidents, particularly if the president has been out of office for 50 years or more and if nothing major (like, say, the American Civil War) occurred during his term.

This isn’t a failing you can pin on a particular generation and how much better (or worse) you think they were educated. Baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials share a similar inability to remember our past heads of state.

“Once they leave office … presidents recede from the memory of U.S. citizens,” Henry Roediger, a psychologist and memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis, and K. Andrew DeSoto, a Wash U graduate student, explain in their study. “For instance, today presidents such as Fillmore, Pierce, and Arthur are barely remembered at all, yet at one point in America’s past their names were known by all U.S. adults, just as the names Obama or Bush are known in 2014.”

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Indeed, Roediger predicts that by 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the United States’ 39th and 40th presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as they now remember about its 13th president, Millard Fillmore.

This study is, of course, about more than how memorable our past presidents are to us. Its findings offer some insight into the psychological phenomenon known as collective memory, defined by Roediger and DeSota as “representation of the past shared by a group.” Collective memory is important, for it helps determine our present beliefs, attitudes and actions and our expectations for the future.

Three generations, four surveys

Roediger’s research into this aspect of collective memory stretches back to 1973, when he first tested the ability of Wash U undergraduate students — all baby boomers — to remember the names of presidents. He later repeated the test in 1991 with Generation X students and again in 2009 with a group of Millennial students.

In 2014, Roediger and DeSoto also recruited a multigenerational group of 577 adults (ages 18 to 69) to take the test online.

Participants were given five minutes to write down the names of all U.S. presidents in the order in which they served. The participants were told that if they were unsure of the order, they could guess or, if they preferred, just write the names somewhere else on the paper. This instruction enabled the researchers to analyze the results for recall of presidents regardless if the order was correct or not.

A clear pattern

The findings showed a remarkably clear pattern across all three generations. Most people could name the first president (George Washington), and many did pretty well at naming and placing in order the next two or three (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). After that, though, the recall rate plummeted fast, with fewer than 25 percent of the study’s participants able to recall more than the first five presidents. (James Monroe is the fifth one, in case you’ve forgotten.)

The recall rate stayed low until the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and his two successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. Those presidents are undoubtedly remembered because of their association with the American Civil War and the ending of slavery, say Roediger and DeSoto. Still, the fact that so many people knew that Lincoln was the 16th president was somewhat surprising, they add.

A few other later names — most notably Theodore Roosevelt (#26) and Woodrow Wilson (#28) — scored high-ish on the recall test, either because they tend to be given favorable rankings by historians or because they tend to pop up more frequently in popular culture or the media.

Another fall

For the most part, however, the ability of the study’s participants to recall the names of presidents stayed quite low between Lincoln and, say, Calvin Coolidge (#30), when what the researchers call “the recency effect” began to kick in. People in all three generational groups were able to recall the names for the most recent eight or nine presidents. Of course, those names were different for each of the generational groups. In 1975, for example, almost all college students recalled the name of President Lyndon Johnson — and knew his position in the list (36th). But by 1991, only one in two could recall those facts, and by 2009, only one in five could.

In fact, Johnson, along with two other presidents who had been recent when the test was first given in 1973, Harry S. Truman (#33) and Gerald R. Ford (#38), are fading fast from Americans’ collective memory. Roediger and DeSota predict that by 2040 — 87 years after he left office — Truman will be forgotten by three-quarters of college students, bringing him down to the level of presidents such as Zachary Taylor and William McKinley today.

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John F. Kennedy (president #35) is likely to be remembered, however — at least, more than Truman and Johnson. Kennedy’s assassination makes his name more memorable, of course, but another major factor helping to keep his memory alive has been his family’s continued high-profile activities in politics and other fields. 

After all, other assassinated presidents — James Garfield and William McKinley — are largely forgotten.

The study was published in the Nov. 28, 2014, issue of Science.