A Shocking Number of Americans Can't Identify Presidents

A new study says many people recognize past commanders-in-chief who never were.

Photo by VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Do you know who Franklin Pierce was? How about Chester Arthur? Alexander Hamilton? If you guessed “former president” for the first two, you're right – and you can celebrate Presidents' Day satisfied that you know more about U.S. presidents than 40 percent of Americans. But if you lumped the guy on the $10 bill in the same group—you, and almost three-fourths of Americans need to crack open that history textbook. According to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis, many Americans recognize "past presidents" who never were.

The study comes from Henry L. Roediger III, Ph.D., a human memory expert with a penchant for presidents. Since 1973 he has administered memory tests aimed at understanding how and why people remember history. The last study he conducted was published in Science in 2014 and showed that Americans know Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Obama, Bush Jr. and Clinton, but after Madison and before Bush Sr., their knowledge gets a little shaky. In fact, fewer than 20 percent were able to remember the names and order of more than the last eight or nine presidents.

It’s a lot to ask less-historically inclined-people to rattle off the names of men they might have only heard of a few times in a history class. So this time around, Roediger, focused on recognition. He wanted to see if Americans would do better if they could pick out the names of presidents, rather than list them off the top of their heads.

For the study, published online this week in Psychological Science, researchers gave 326 people an electronic list of names. They then asked participants to identify which names were those of past presidents. Mixed in, though, were the names of non-presidents and other non-famous common names. Participants also were asked to rate their confidence in their answers using a zero to 100-point scale, 100 being “absolutely certain.”

They did do a little better than the 2014 study. Participants were able to correctly recognize the names of 88 percent of the past presidents. But they also gave presidential status to those who never had a desk in the oval office like Benjamin Franklin, Hubert Humphrey (vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson), and John Calhoun (vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson). Nearly a third of participants, too, identified Thomas Moore—a non-famous common name added to the list.

Most notably though, 71 percent of Americans thought Alexander Hamilton was president and were 83 percent confident in their choice.

"Elvis Presley was famous, but he would never be recognized as a past president," Roediger said in a statement. "Most of the names in our study that were falsely recognized as belonging to past presidents are those with strong ties to American history. These same individuals would not be recognized if the task were to recognize famous musicians from the 1960s. It's not just enough to have a familiar name, but it must be a familiar name in the right context."

Feeling discouraged with your recall skills? If you do pick up your teen's U.S. History textbook for a refresher, here are five ways to train your brain so you’ll remember more—even if it's just for Presidents' Day trivia.