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Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, I hate to shamefully admit, are the only American presidents from before the 1980s for whom I could recall their rough chronological place in American history. Considering that I am from Scotland, and have never studied American history, I guess that’s not too bad, right? Well, to my surprise there were striking similarities between the key presidents I recalled and a recent study that probed the collective memory of Americans, entitled, Forgetting the Presidents.
The study tested the memory of college students and a wider sample of Americans (over 900 in total) from three different generations (babyboomer, generation X and millennial) in remembering the names of all previously serving presidents and also, the ordinal position in which they served (e.g. Lincoln was the 16th president, but you probably knew that).
By calculating the probability of recall of each of the presidents and plotting remembrance of ordinal position curves, researchers from the Memory Lab at Washington University found that collective memory and individual episodic and autobiographical memory show striking similarities.
Obama’s name and position was obviously remembered well, as were other very recently serving presidents whose positions were gradually forgotten as we step back in time, this is called the “recency effect”. Contrastingly, practically no one forgot Washington as the 1st president, although they gradually forgot the presidents in place after him. This is known as the “primacy effect”, where there is enhanced recall of items at the very beginning of a list. The presidents in the middle (from Van Buren to Coolidge, 1837-1923) were largely forgotten.
However, as the lead author of the paper, and author of new book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Professor Roediger, points out:
“The only president in the middle of the pack that stands out is Lincoln, presumably because of the Civil War.”
Not only Lincoln, but other presidents who neighbored his reign chronologically also had their name and position relatively well-remembered, albeit less so than the near 100% recall of Lincoln himself. This resembles the isolation effect in list recall, where a distinctive member from the middle of a list prompts the enhanced recall of neighboring items in the midst of other forgotten middle items.
Next, when literally taking the ordinal position out of the equation and looking at simply recalling a president’s name, some other peaks in remembering emerged from the sea of middle presidents. These seemed to correlate with the presidents I recalled. Why did I remember the pre-80s presidents that I did? Well Washington can be chalked down to the primacy effect, but what about the others?
For the middle presidents, I remembered Lincoln’s role in the civil war and ending of slavery, Wilson in WWI and Roosevelt in WWII. Remembering Eisenhower was admittedly a Breaking Bad phenomenon as opposed to remembering his involvement in the Korean war. While not considered middle presidents, I also recalled Kennedy due to his assassination, as well the Vietnam war, an association I have also mentally linked with Nixon. All of these presidents fell in peaks of remembrance in the data that outshone the largely forgotten middle presidents. There was also one other tiny little peak within the middle presidents, a 25-30% recall of Polk, which Wikipedia dutifully told me served during one of the few pre-modern wars I left out, the Mexican-American war of 1846.
While the authors did not explore this putative war connection further, studies on collective memory indicate that autobiographical memories of massive social trauma are strongly tied to collective memories, where:
“Collective memories focus on a group’s past great losses or victories, since these events strongly influence the multigenerational development of an ethnic/national group’s identity and understanding of history.”
This leads one to think that these past social traumas may obstruct future generations from involvement in war. However, the tendency to remember past injustices can be so strong that people can be locked into collective memory “prisons”, which can be used to legitimate future violence toward others and killing in the name of identity, according to world-renowned experts like Professor of psychiatry Vamik Volkan.
It is well-known that a group’s collective memory is formed and shaped by all forms of both direct and indirect communication, emerging through telling and reformulating stories, group events, educational institutions, as well as rituals and practices, both on and offline. Is it any wonder that war plays a significant role in that shaping when we traditionally commemorate war in remembrance days, bring these memories into physicality in 1000s of war memorials, place a strong focus on war in school history lessons and have a mass media tendency to focus on bloodshed? I would be willing to gamble that my rather loose, personal relation to the data in the Washington University study has a strong basis worthy of investigation.
Finally, this led me to ponder why the middle presidents were forgotten so badly. Are peacetime Presidents simply not worthy of memorializing? This may not be the case, and a phenomenon known as socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting (SS-RIF) may be the culprit. The mass collective acts of commemorating wartime, may be actively suppressing the memories of unmentioned peacetime.
If our battle-based collective remembering has a strong role in the forgetting of peacetime presidents, Obama’s best bet for having his legacy live on over 100 years from now would be a bloody one. Perhaps being a president during the US governments involvement in wars in the middle east, or being the first African American to hold office will immortalize his reign like Lincoln? Turning to the study for clues, a lack of data points (i.e. lack of time passed) means that currently predicting when future generations will collectively forget both Obama, and the five presidents that precede him, is unreliable.
With a final glimmer of hope that not all of the well-remembered presidents were linked with war and destruction, there was one early president that 50-75% of the test subjects remembered that didn’t serve during wartime, yet stood out among his primacy effected peers, President Adams. For the sake of peace-loving naivety, please tell me he was remembered for something profound, that had not one single thing to do with war?
Roediger HL 3rd, & DeSoto KA (2014). Cognitive psychology. Forgetting the presidents. Science (New York, N.Y.), 346 (6213), 1106-9 PMID: 25430768
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