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President who? People remember president names more than faces

Portrait of President John Adams
President John Adams.

More than 65 percent of respondents to a survey thought that Alexander Hamilton was a president of the United States, despite a blockbuster Broadway musical that explained otherwise.

The finding was part of a study on collective memory that asked participants to identify presidents based on their names or their portraits. People generally recognized Washington, Lincoln and the men who were presidents in their lifetimes, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. While many presidents weren’t identified by either name or face, facial recognition fared worse overall.

The study, published in the open-access journal PLoS One, sought to determine a group’s shared memory. It helps bridge a gap in the understanding of collective memory versus individual memory, said the study’s first author, Adam Putnam, assistant professor of psychology at Furman University. Putnam worked with two undergraduate students on the study, Madison Drake ’21, and Serene Wang, ’20. Both students are authors on the paper.

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln’s portrait was one of the most recognized.

Previous studies have looked at memory of names, but not faces, Putnam says. Adding the facial recognition component was Drake’s idea, and it represents the next step in collective memory research. The Hamilton finding was surprising, Putnam said, and was similar to findings of research conducted before the popular musical explained that the founding father was secretary of the Treasury and not a president. The confusion might be explained by Hamilton’s presence on $10 bills, Putnam said.

Studies such as this one form the basis for understanding bigger societal issues, such as the debate over Confederal monuments or teaching the history of slavery,

“On one hand, people are saying these are (statues of) war heroes and these are important parts of our past and it’s neglecting our past if we take them down,” Putnam says. “Others say no, these monuments were not put up after the Civil War, they were put up in the Jim Crow era and they were intentionally put up as signs of power against minorities. If we want to keep it we need to put it into context.

“This is a debate about how we’re choosing to remember our past and the implications it has for different groups in our country right now,” Putnam said. “Before we can figure out how these memories are forming, at some level we have to know what are the basic facts people are remembering.”

For example, the collective memories of World War 2 differ for people in different countries. For Americans, the general narrative is that Pearl Harbor was the event that finally pushed the country into war and D-Day was a seminal moment in the U.S., helping to save Europe from Nazi control. The collective memory of Russians, however, sees both events as minimal while others, like the winter siege of Stalingrad, as prominent.

Putnam’s previous work asked Americans to judge how much they think their state contributed to U.S. history. The results were that people had an out-sized collective memory of their state’s contributions.

“It’s just the way our minds think,” Putnam said. “You think it’s relative to you and not to other people so much.”

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