No one will remember you because society doesn’t care

A few years ago I was in Washington DC and, being a bit of a tourist, I randomly picked up a fact card about one of our exciting presidents. Obviously the excitement mounted: who did I get? My best buddy LBJ? The notoriously rotund Taft? The Ur-President Washington? Nope, I got mighty Chester. A. Arthur! Wait, who?

I come from a family where History is important. Some of the first fatherly I got was that I should set my PIN number to something like the year of the Battle of Hastings because obviously that is easy to remember. He also likes to declaim that every educated person must surely know the year of the Norman Invasion. I can recite the Presidents back to Cleveland (though I sometimes forget Harding). I’m pretty sure my father can recite every president from Washington to the present day, in order.

And I had not the slightest idea that this Arthur guy ever even existed. I thought this card must be a joke until I pulled up Wikipedia and there he was (your trivia for the day: he first became President after Garfield was assassinated.)

Who remembers the presidents

Clearly I could remember the guy. But why him versus anyone else? Now that is socially determined. Roediger and DeSoto examined data from 1974, 1991, and 2009 that asked people to name who was president in which year. And what is interesting is that there is a very similar ‘forgetting’ curve: each generation generally remembers what is recent, and it drops off steeply after that.

But look at that tail! Look at how the baby boomers remember presidents some time back and then it just collapses. And Generation X is kind of similar – with a few more remembering Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman. And then Millenials have a fairly persistent memory up through Carter that the Boomers never would have had!

If you want more evidence that the Boomers have taken over pop culture and instilled their values as the important values in a way that previous generations didn’t – there it is. We remember their Presidents, not ours.

This is also pretty clear when participants are asked to freely recall Presidents. Which names do people know? Obviously, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are big ones. There are also bumps for John Quincy Adams and, surprisingly, Polk (!). But there is a persistent memory across generations for the Boomer presidents in a somewhat surprising way*.

And as history goes, so go some names. Today, no one remembers Filmore or Pierce, Arthur or Harding (whew). And we can quantitatively make forgetting curves to guess how long Presidents will be remembered. Kennedy will stick around but my man LBJ is soon to be unjustly forgotten. Such is life.

How long will the presidents be remembered

* Sorry I can’t make this quantitative; the “data” section of their supplemental methods appears to be missing…

References

Roediger, H., & DeSoto, K. (2014). Forgetting the presidents Science, 346 (6213), 1106-1109 DOI: 10.1126/science.1259627

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4 thoughts on “No one will remember you because society doesn’t care

  1. Don’t you think that the better recall of the newer generations is just due to television and other media that keeps talking about the presidents of the past century and all the footage and news available? Which may or may not correlate with the fact that the boomers probably still control TV programming.

  2. It doesn’t seem justified to say that the increased recall today of presidents from 40 or 50 years before the survey date represents a generational difference. As far as your writeup indicates, the surveys were of “people” in these years, not strictly young people, so it’s not “Boomers vs. millennials” but “Americans [of any age] in 1974 vs. Americans in 2009”.

    There is also substantial distortion because the X-axis scale is by president rather than by year, and Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower together unusually occupied the office for 28 years. If you define Carter in the 2009 survey as the lowest point on the curve that qualifies as “fairly persistent memory”, Carter left office ca. 29 years before the survey [give or take most of a year]. The most similar point value of free recall probability in the 1974 survey was for Hoover – admittedly, slightly less often remembered – who left office ca. 42 years before the survey. If your cutoff for fairly persistent memory in the 1991 survey is Kennedy – much more often remembered – rather than Roosevelt through Eisenhower (since the latter choice would have to be extended to similar recall probabilities in other years’ surveys), he was killed in 1963, 28 years after the survey. Eisenhower, departing 31 years before the 1991 survey, was less often correctly recalled than Hoover was in 1974 after 42 years out of office.

    In short, these data could just as easily have been presented in such a way as to demonstrate that each generation is less conversant with history and forgets it faster than the one that came before.

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