Flashback Friday: Who was a real U.S. president, Alexander Hamilton or Chester Arthur? Most Americans get the answer wrong.

By Seriously Science | April 13, 2018 6:00 am

1024px-Alexander_Hamilton_portrait_by_John_Trumbull_1806Americans aren’t exactly known for our knowledge of history (or geography, for that matter). But we should at least know our own presidents, right? Enter these researchers, who used an online survey to measure how well people can distinguish real U.S. presidents from others with well-known or presidential-sounding names. They found that, while people were actually able to recognize 88% of U.S. presidents by name (the exceptions including lesser known presidents like Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur), they were also likely to incorrectly identify several non-presidents, including Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Of course, the researchers point out that the study was performed before the popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton”, which might make people more aware of Alexander Hamilton’s place in history. Maybe for the sake of public education, the next hit musical should be “Pierce”?

Recognizing the Presidents: Was Alexander Hamilton President?

“Studies over the past 40 years have shown that Americans can recall about half the U.S. presidents. Do people know the presidents even though they are unable to access them for recall? We investigated this question using the powerful cues of a recognition test. Specifically, we tested the ability of 326 online subjects to recognize U.S. presidents when presented with their full names among various types of lures. The hit rate for presidential recognition was .88, well above the proportion produced in free recall but far from perfect. Presidents Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur were recognized less than 60% of the time. Interestingly, four nonpresidents were falsely recognized at relatively high rates, and Alexander Hamilton was more frequently identified as president than were several actual presidents. Even on a recognition test, knowledge of American presidents is imperfect and prone to error. The false alarm data support the theory that false fame can arise from contextual familiarity.”

Related content:
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: reinforcing stereotypes
  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    I am sure that I learned many, many things that I have never ever needed to know. For example what difference should it make if I do or do not know who the second president was? The capitol of North Dakota?

    • http://stephan-zielinski.com/ Stephan Zielinski

      Teaching the state capitals is, I argue, sorcery in action. That is, well-meaning people noticed that folks who knew a lot about American history knew all the state capitals, both because (A) they knew a lot about why cities such-and-thus were the correct choice for the administrative center at the time, and (B) because they kept abreast of what the state legislatures were doing, referring to them by the name of the capital. (“Sacramento worries about almonds. Bismark worries about barley.”) Thus, per standard European sorcery that reverses cause and effect, they concluded that making sure everyone knew the state capitals would ensure they knew a lot about history and current events.

      • PCrow

        I once spent a lovely night in Knoxville and a scenic drive across the State because the person who booked my flight thought that Knoxville was the capital of Tennessee.

    • OWilson

      You’d have zero street cred, in a game of Trivial Pursuit? :)

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  • scottdouglasjohnson

    I knew it was Chester Arthur thanks to Die Hard 3.


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