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On the Relativity of Being Remembered as a US President

by Bruno Van de Casteele

December 7, 2014

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Donate 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 tocurrent and recently passed events. Events further back tend to get forgotten, or at least the details become blurry.

An interesting study in Science Magazineproved 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 publishedtests done over different years (1972, 1991 and 2009) and across different age groups. I'm quite certain the same results could be reproducedin 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.

Without surprises, the more recent the president, the better they could be remembered. You see a significant decline in accuracythe farther back you go in timesbeforethe test was done, almost exactly. The firstpresident, 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 asPolk (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.

As 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 threeyears), 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. USpresidents (especially second-term presidents) want to carve out their place in the history books, andpolitical 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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by Bruno Van de Casteele

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