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.
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.
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 presidents are remembered across generations suggests that we as a nation share a seemingly permanent form of collective memory."
H. L. Roediger III And K. A. Desoto. Forgetting the presidents. Science, 28 November 2014: 1106-1109 DOI: 10.1126/science.1259627