On the Relativity of Being Remembered as a US President

We humans are a strange bunch. Probably because of a good evolutionary reason and certainly caused by our inherently faulty memory, we tend to pay a lot more attention to current and recently passed events. Events further back tend to get forgotten, or at least the details become blurry.

An interesting study in Science Magazine proved that point once more (found via Futurity). Henry Roediger III and Andrew DeSoto have combined tests of the knowledge of US citizens about their presidents. Interestingly, they published tests done over different years (1972, 1991 and 2009) and across different age groups. I’m quite certain the same results could be reproduced in other countries, using respective presidents, prime ministers, or monarchs.

The test itself is quite genius in its simplicity: people were asked to list as many US presidents they could remember, in the right order. If they could remember the name, but not the place, they were encouraged to guess or put them in a separate list, in order to evaluate at least name recollection.

The following are the results done with undergraduate students in 1972, 1991 and 2009.

graph1Without surprises, the more recent the president, the better they could be remembered. You see a significant decline in accuracy the farther back you go in times before the test was done, almost exactly. The first president, no surprise there either, gets universally remembered. But between Van Buren and Harding (with one exception, see below) there seems to be no recognition whatsoever. Even though these guys probably did their best and might have done good stuff, they don’t seem that important anymore to the average American student. Worse, it seems that “zone of non-remembrance” is now slowly creeping towards Truman. The authors speculate, and with cause, that the US presidents from the ’70s and ’80s might be as forgotten in 2060 as Polk (even though there is a song about him) or Garfield are now.

Most psychology studies have one weakness, in that they are done on undergraduate students (who get credit for it) and might not necessarily represent the general population. So the authors did the same test with adults, focussing on three different age groups. The results actually confirm those done on students.

graph2As I said above, there is a big exception to those forgotten presidents “in the middle of the pack,” Lincoln, together with his successors Johnson and Grant. The increased recognition of Lincoln is due to his role in the end of slavery, the Civil War and him being assassinated. Most people could even place him in the correct spot (16th president). Johnson and Grant probably get better recognised because of their proximity to Lincoln, and Grant probably also because of his role in the war.

Being a president in a war doesn’t necessarily guarantee better recollection though. Wilson and Roosevelt (World Wars I and II) do not seem to fare better, especially odd for Roosevelt who was president for a record 13 years. For more recent presidents, it seems too early to see how they fare. Being assassinated seems not enough either. There is indeed a better recollection of Kennedy (even though he was only president for three years), but Garfield and McKinley are as forgotten as the rest around them. You really have to stand out like Lincoln.

In the end, these scientific results serve as a warning and a chilling reminder that everything is relative. US presidents (especially second-term presidents) want to carve out their place in the history books, and political leaders are very much concerned about current events and how their poll numbers are. Science shows that the first and the most recent ones get remembered best, and for the rest only exceptional individuals or people linked to extraordinary events get remembered more.

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About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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5 Responses to On the Relativity of Being Remembered as a US President

  1. It depends in part on where you live, too. I live in Buffalo, NY, where Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland are remembered quite well: Fillmore was the first president of the University at Buffalo, and there is a hospital (and other things) named after him. I do remember a movie from the 1950s in which a character named his dog “Millard” after Fillmore, on the grounds that no one had ever named anything after him. At that time, I didn’t live in Buffalo, and thought that that was true. Cleveland is also remembered well, as a former mayor.

  2. Unfortunately, even the creators of the survey forgot several presidents. Atchison, for example, came between Polk and Taylor; and there were either 16 or 18 (depending on how you count them) presidential terms before Washington’s. Still, a good study.

  3. Considering that during his presidency one third of old Mexico became two thirds of the current USA, including, er, Texas and California, (US/Mexican War 1846 – 48), James Polk maybe ought to be rather better remembered..?

  4. Dave says:

    I’m surprised at FDR’s poor showing. I figured he’d be up there with Lincoln.

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