Collective Memories of Three Wars in United States History in Younger and Older Adults

Article excerpt

Published online: 5 October 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract A collective memory is a representation of the past that is shared by members of a group. We investigated similarities and differences in the collective memories of younger and older adults for three major wars in U.S. history (the Civil War, World War II, and the Iraq War). Both groups were alive during the recent Iraq War, but only the older subjects were alive during World War II, and both groups learned about the Civil War from historical sources. Subjects recalled the 10 most important events that occurred during each war and then evaluated the emotional valence, the relative importance, and their level of knowledge for each event. They also estimated the percentage of people that would share their memory of each event within their age group and the other age group. Although most historical events were recalled by fewer than 25%of subjects, younger and older adults commonly recalled a core set of events for each war that conform to a narrative structure that may be fundamental to collective remembering. Younger adults showed greater consensus in the events that they recalled for all three wars, relative to older adults, but there was less consensus in both groups for the Iraq War. Whereas younger adults recalled more specific events of short duration, older adults recalled more extended and summarized events of long duration. Our study shows that collective memories can be studied empirically and can differ depending on whether the events are experienced personally or learned from historical sources.

Keywords Collective memory . Historical memory . False consensus effect . Aging and memory

A collectivememory is a representation of the past that is shared by members of a social group. Since Maurice Halbwachs introduced the term in the 1920s (Halbwachs, 1980, 1992), it has been adopted by psychologists (e.g., Pennebaker, Páez,&Rimé, 1997; Weldon & Bellinger, 1997), sociologists (e.g., Schudson, 1995; Schuman, Schwartz, & D'Arcy, 2005), literary analysts (e.g., Young, 1993), and historians (Bodnar, 1992; Crane, 1997; Confino, 1997; Novick, 1999). Collective memory also lies at the heart of many public discussions and national debates about current and historical events. Examples include the dispute between Estonia and Russia over how the 1939 Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact should be remembered (Wertsch, 2008a) and attempts to compare the recent U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq with eitherWorldWar II (Baker &White, 2005) or the Vietnam War (Page, 2004) in order to mobilize public support or opposition, respectively. Collective memory studies are part of a broader movement within memory studies that span the social sciences and the humanities (Roediger & Wertsch, 2008).

Given the widespread usage of the term collective memory across academic disciplines, it is not surprising that the research literature on this phenomenon is diverse, largely disconnected, and without a unifying theoretical framework (Hirst & Manier, 2008; Olick & Robbins, 1998; Wang, 2008). One reason for this state of affairs is that there is an implicit division of labor in the social sciences in which sociologists and anthropologists typically investigate collective phenomena, while psychologists handle questions pertaining to the minds of individuals. As a result, researchers who study collective phenomena are frustrated by the fact that psychological theories of human memory focus on the structure and function of an individual's cognitive processes operating in isolation from other people, seldom taking social influences into account (e.g., Meacham, 1995; Bartlett [1932] represents an important exception). Likewise, researchers who focus on the memory of individuals are discouraged by the dearth of experimental research and the lack of agreement on methods for studying and measuring collective memory (e.g., Wertsch & Roediger, 2008). …


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