Most American presidents destined to fade from nation's memory, study suggests

November 27, 2014, Washington University in St. Louis
US President Harry S. Truman will be forgotten by three-fourths of American college students by 2040, according to a new study by psychology researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. Credit: WUSTL / Sharon Derry

American presidents spend their time in office trying to carve out a prominent place in the nation's collective memory, but most are destined to be forgotten within 50-to-100 years of their serving as president, suggests a study on presidential name recall released today by the journal Science.

"By the year 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the 39th and 40th presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as they now remember about our 13th president, Millard Fillmore," predicts study co-author Henry L. Roediger III, PhD, a human memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Roediger, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences, has been testing the ability of undergraduate to remember the names of presidents since 1973, when he first administered the test to undergraduates while a psychology graduate student at Yale University.

His current study, co-authored with Washington University graduate student K. Andrew DeSoto, compares results from the presidential-recall tests Roediger has given to three generations of undergraduate college students (1974, 1991 and 2009) and a similar test offered online to 577 adults ages 18-69 in 2014.

While Roediger's early research used the presidential-recall test to study patterns of remembering and forgetting in individual test takers, the new study was able to uncover how Americans forget presidents from our historical or popular memory over time.

In each test, participants were provided a numbered list with blank spaces and asked to fill in the names of all presidents they could remember in the order in which they served. If they could remember names but not the order, they were instructed to guess or to put the names off to the side. Thus, the results could be scored for recall of presidents with or without regard to correct order.

Findings showed several consistent patterns in how we have forgotten past presidents and offer a formula to predict the rate at which current presidents are likely to be forgotten by future generations.

Among the six presidents who were serving or had served most recently when the test was first given in 1973, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford are now fading fast from historical memory, whereas John F. Kennedy has been better retained. The study estimates that Truman will be forgotten by three-fourths of college students by 2040, 87 years after his leaving office, bringing him down to the level of presidents such as Zachary Taylor and William McKinley.

The current data do not permit assessment of forgetting rates of the most recent presidents, and do not specify why some relatively recent presidents are forgotten more rapidly than others, Roediger said.

"Kennedy was president less than three years, but is today remembered much better than Lyndon Johnson," Roediger said. "One idea is that his assassination made him memorable, but of course that does not apply to James Garfield or William McKinley, who were also assassinated and are remembered relatively poorly.

"Kennedy may be well recalled because his brothers and other family members were (and are) active in politics and help to keep his memory alive," Roediger speculated.

HIllary Clinton, if elected in 2016, has the potential to be much better remembered than her husband, because her presidency would represent a unique first in American history. Barack Obama may be well remembered for the same reason, Roediger said.

The rate at which college students forgot the order of recent presidents remained remarkably consistent over time and across different groups of college students. In 1974, nearly all college students recalled Johnson and his ordinal position (36), but by 1991, the proportion remembering him dropped to 53 percent and by 2009, it plummeted to 20 percent.

When asked to name the presidents in the order they served, we as a nation do fairly well at naming the last few presidents, but our recall abilities then fall off quickly, with less than 20 percent able to remember more than the last eight or nine presidents in order, the study finds.

While Americans who were tested could name the nation's first president (George Washington) and do reasonably well at naming the next three or four presidents in order, the recall success rate for early presidents also drops off sharply, with fewer than 25 percent of Americans able to recall more than the first five presidents in order.

"Out of the 150 college students we tested in 2009, only four of them were able to recall virtually every president and place each in the correct position," DeSoto said. "It's possible that these individuals used a mnemonic like a song or rhyme that they learned for the purpose of remembering the presidents."

With a few interesting exceptions, the vast majority of presidents in the middle of pack—from No. 8, Martin Van Buren, to No. 30, Calvin Coolidge—already are largely forgotten by the average American, the study finds.

The probability that anyone who took the test could recall both the name and the order of most presidents in this middle range is quite low, and this level of poor recall for the middle presidents has generally held true in testing across all generations for nearly four decades.

A notable exception in this middle wasteland of presidential recall is Abraham Lincoln and his two immediate successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

"Clearly, Lincoln and his successors are well remembered because of their association with the American Civil War and the ending of slavery, but it is notable that many students and adults also often know that Lincoln was the 16th president," Roediger said.

Other pre-Coolidge presidents who were remembered reasonably well in the free recall portion of the test are Theodore Roosevelt (26), William Howard Taft (27) and Woodrow Wilson (28), a showing that could be related to their favorable rankings by historians and ongoing mentions in popular culture and news media, the researchers suggest.

Roediger's prediction about the memorability of Reagan and other recent presidents hinges on two core principles of human memory that are confirmed by this study and related research.

First, when presented with information in a long list, we tend to best remember items that are presented at the beginning and end of the list. Second, items presented in the middle of a long list are better remembered when they are somehow distinctive and different from other items in the list.

America's memory for Johnson and Reagan, like that for most presidents, is destined to fade along a quick and predictable trajectory as new elections inexorably push them and their memories further down the list of the most recent and currently best-remembered presidents, the study suggests.

While most collective memory research conducted thus far has explored how we as a nation remember historic events, such as the Holocaust or the 9/11 terror attacks, this study is among the first to focus on how we forget salient events of the past over generations and to obtain estimates of rate of forgetting over time.

"Our results show that memories of famous historical people and events can be studied objectively," Roediger said. "The great stability in how these are remembered across generations suggests that we as a nation share a seemingly permanent form of ."

Explore further: Most US presidents live beyond average life expectancy

More information: "Forgetting the presidents," by H.L. Roediger et al. Science, 2014. … 1126/science.1259627

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1.9 / 5 (9) Nov 27, 2014
Millard Fillmore.

Presidents should fade from memory. The government in Washington was never meant to do much more than deliver the mail, protect the border, and maintain free trade on the high seas.

We'd all be better off if that were the case again.
Steve 200mph Cruiz
4.3 / 5 (11) Nov 27, 2014

You're an idiot.

You want to know the reason America is the strongest nation on Earth? It's because we have strong laws defining our government. A business chooses us over India, not because of taxes or anything like that. They choose us because our country is reliable and stable with a strong civic history and accountability.

"The Government" has been around for 10 thousand of years, and pushing for an ideal that may or may not have even existed in the minds of the founding fathers (just your personal prejudice) , 250 years ago, is freaking ridiculous.

A country survives like an army by adapting to every battle and being mindful of their surroundings and the field they are playing on. Attacking head first with a cavalry because hundreds of years ago that might of worked is no way to survive our competitive world.
3 / 5 (4) Nov 27, 2014
Really dumb and obvious research study. Obviously the older things become, more likely you are going to forget it. Hell its called history.
1.8 / 5 (8) Nov 27, 2014
You want to know the reason America is the strongest nation on Earth? It's because we have strong laws defining our government. A business chooses us over India, not because of taxes or anything like that. They choose us because our country is reliable and stable with a strong civic history and accountability.
USA has highest corporate tax on planet. USA is nesting ground for corprafascists who enjoy scheming to take over the works and instigate eternal warfare while looting the profits. Prosident Obama will be remembered for his inaction while world decided multilpolar was better world model and all gold was transferred wholesale to Russia and China, which history always proves become the superpowers. Every dollar you give Putin for oil he buys gold from your silly COMEX market. He knows US dollars are like Soviet rouble after CCCP dissolved. Obama will be something like Goverchev of USA
1 / 5 (4) Nov 27, 2014
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 'Reason in Common Sense'.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2014
@ Steve , the rule of law is a dead duck in USSA , eg see 'civil forfeiture' also read MA

and wake up!
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2014
In democracies, leaders are supposed to fade from memory. Democracy is designed to make culpability impossible to determine, and to promote the illusion of 'change'. It's funny how every decade or so people are eager to vote for 'change', forgetting how they did so only an election or 2 previously.

Sometimes this breaks down completely, or is allowed to. The Weimar republic saw the emergence of as many as 30 major political parties. Obviously, the majority will always be dissatisfied in that situation. And this is when the demagogues like hitler step in, just as Aristotle explained.

Democracy is too fragile to withstand major discontent, and too prone to corruption to operate by itself Untended and Unmanipulated.
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 27, 2014
The beauty of democracy is that the blame ultimately lies with the people because the majority of them always vote the crooks and bums into office.

This is closely related to the guilt that religion instills in believers who are so willing to accept that their own lack of faith and devotion is the source of their problems. Guilt is the common denominator. It is the same with savings and investment.

The truth is that, since ALL of these systems are Manipulated, the people are as blameless as they are powerless to do anything about it.

The public will NEVER be allowed to select their leaders or determine their collective futures because of the simple fact that they are unqualified to do so. They have no conception of the greater good.

"Never fight for other people right pop?" -sonny corleone
Nov 28, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
4 / 5 (4) Nov 28, 2014

Some are remembered for their genius, faith, and true leadership, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They will always be remembered, and they should.

George Washington wasn't as pious as many believe. He never took communion and when he was President he was publicly criticised for that. He solve that problem by not attending church on communion Sundays. During the months of the Constitutional Convention he attended church services three times, once at a Catholic church, once an Episcopal, and once at Dutch Reformed service. In all his voluminous there isn't a hint of him being devout.

As a young man Abe Lincoln was publicly an atheist. The first time he ran for office he artfully skirted the issue. Toward the end of his Presidency he seems to have developed a sense of Providence but he was never a Christian.

3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 28, 2014

Others will remembered for their evil and trashing of the nation and law, such as Bill Clinton who would rather play with cigars and female interns than govern; and Barack Obama who will well go down as the the most (to date) progressive liar and lawless of all.

I know you are too young to remember the Clinton Presidency but the country did quite well under his leadership. Among Progressives Obama is considered too conservative.

"Others don't really need to be remembered."

Ignorance is bliss?

I'm not surprised you would make that statement.

5 / 5 (3) Nov 28, 2014
Learning lists of names (presidents, states, capitals, countries, animals, plants, ... ) is about as pointless as anything. Learning who did what is almost as pointless. It's the 'what' that is important - and which needs to be retained (so that bad examples aren't repeated and good examples can serve as an inspiration).

But if they're looking to remember people who shape the US maybe they should ask if anyone remembers any senator or representative (or supreme court judge) from history. I'm guessing the overwhelming answer would be: no.

Kennedy was president less than three years, but is today remembered much better than Lyndon Johnson

DUH. If you get a movie about a person every few years that tends to bolster memory. (See also Nixon)
5 / 5 (6) Nov 28, 2014
Others will remembered for their evil and trashing of the nation and law, such as Bill Clinton who would rather play with cigars and female interns than govern; and Barack Obama who will well go down as the the most (to date) progressive liar and lawless of all.

I know you are too young to remember the Clinton Presidency but the country did quite well under his leadership. Among Progressives Obama is considered too conservative.

verkle gives us a perfect example that tabloid press trumps actual fact checking every time. He'd rather have presidents wage wars and abusing the constitution (and not having sex) as opposed to having presidents who actually work for the good of the country (and have sex).
verkle: There's something SO wrong with your value system - you know that?
1 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2014
george Washington wasnt as pious
-Indeed. He was first and foremost a Freemason and as we all know, they worship baphomet. Whether they know it or not.

not rated yet Nov 30, 2014
It is wise to realize that most 'big governments' have resulted in 'big mistakes' for their citizens and the world as well. Most well known leaders are only remembered for their roles in war and crisis, not in making their countries more advanced or transformational. Even JFK will be forgotten in 75 years when all those who remembered him as little children are long dead and his direct descendents long deceased as well. Few in history are remembered long, far fewer are even now loved or cherished to include family long deceased family members.
1 / 5 (2) Dec 01, 2014
No one will forget the blundering, bungling, buffoon Obama for some time. I hope.

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