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I'm old enough (ouch) to remember "I Like Ike (President Eisenhower)," I Love Lucy before it was in reruns, and the thrill of owning a Water Wiggle. When people like me are gone, will anyone remember them? Or similar icons of today 50 years later?

It's probably been a long time since you heard a comment about Calvin Coolidge in everyday conversation, if you ever have at all.

President of the United States from 1925 to 1929, Coolidge was notoriously a man of very few words and a stern, New England demeanor. He was the subject of comedy routines for decades, even the use of his name eliciting laughter, right up until about 1970. Then people just stopped talking about him.

Chances also are you don't know any children who would be thrilled to own a Wham-O Water Wiggle. In 1965, however, I was. The comical rubber head you could place on the end of a garden hose could chase you and your buddies all over the yard, and also hit you on the head and knock out your teeth. No longer available in the United States, the Water Wiggle was a must-have along with other famous Wham-O innovations of the 1950's and 1960's, such as the frisbee, the super slide, and the hula hoop.

Scientists tell us that just as people forget, society also forgets.

Things "everybody" knows, like who was running for President with the slogan "Tippecanoe (pronounced tip-a-canoe) and Tyler Too" and what Lucy and Ethel had to 'splain (explain) to Ricky and Fred on the I Love Lucy show no longer are common knowledge, despite the ability of nearly anyone to find out nearly anything on the Internet.

Forgetfulness Can Occur On A Societal Level

Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as cultural forgetfulness, the tendency of entire societies to forget common experiences. Cultural forgetfulness is the flip side of cultural memory, the linking of past, present, and future not only in the memories of individuals but also in the symbols, celebrations, monuments, holidays, music, art, and other triggers of individual memories that cultures provide. Cultural memories last longer than individual memories, but they do not last forever, or at least that is what two researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri discovered and reported in the journal Science.

Testing Cultural Memory Across 40 Years

A total of 415 students at Washington University were asked to name as many US presidents as they could and then to list the order in which 9 presidents served in office. The experiment was conducted in 1974, in 1991, and in 2014, but the researchers used the same list of 9 presidents in their test in 2014 as in the tests  more than 20 and a full 40 years earlier. Using the same list of presidents (Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, the previously mentioned Coolidge, and Harding) tested the influence of cultural memory on individual memories.

It probably does not come as a big surprise that students in 2014 had trouble remembering the order of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, who served in office in the 1920's. Even fewer would remember their predecessors Wilson, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and McKinley. By the year 2040, researchers estimate, President Truman will probably be as poorly remember as President McKinley is now, and even familiar names like Clinton, Bush, and Obama will fade into hazy memory, assuming no spectacularly long-lasting achievements preserve their place in the cultural memory.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Sotirova-Kohli M, Opwis K, Roesler C, Smith SM, Rosen DH, Vaid J, Djonov V. Symbol/Meaning paired-associate recall: an "archetypal memory" advantage? Behav Sci (Basel). 2013 Oct 9. 3(4):541-61. doi: 10.3390/bs3040541. eCollection 2013 Dec. PMID: 25379255 [PubMed].Photo courtesy of _annamo by Flickr:
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