How many United States presidents can you name and put into sequential order? If you're like most Americans, then the answer is probably not many. According to a new study published in Science, U.S. citizens, regardless of the generation they come from, tend to remember only the very first president—George Washington—plus the most recent few, with greatest hits like Abe Lincoln tossed in. All the American leaders who came in between are as good as gone from public memory.
The study's authors, based at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to see how well cultural knowledge is retained and turned to data collected in 1974, 1991 and 2009 from 415 undergraduate students. Those students had al been asked to list as many U.S. presidents as they could remember and to put the presidents in sequential order. The researchers also selected nearly 600 random adults to perform the same task in 2014.
No matter when the subjects performed the task, the pattern of their memories remained the same. Everyone remembered George Washington; most remembered some of the other early presidents. (The team attributes this to the primacy effect—our tendency to remember the first of any important group.) People also had no trouble listing the last few presidents who had held office (which the scientists refer to as the recency effect). A few notable names from the middle of American history—Abraham Lincoln, most often—cropped up, too, probably due to Lincoln's enduring presence both in history lessons and in popular culture.
All of the other presidents, however, fell through the cracks of memory.
Based on these results, the researchers modeled the rate of forgetting for presidents who are relatively well-known today. In 2040, Harry S. Truman, they predict, will elicit about the same recall as William McKinley does today—three-quarters of college students will not recognize his name.
So while we might remember President Obama years from now for his pivotal role as the first black man to hold office, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and George H. W. will likely soon join the ranks of Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore—largely forgotten but for their Wikipedia pages.