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.
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Although studies of collective memory typically focus on the remembering of public or national historical events, collective memory/collective remembering can also encompass small groups, such as couples’ or families’ recollections of, say, a first date, the birth of a child, or a trip (e.g., Halbwachs, 1980).
There are, of course, other ways of understanding the complex interplay between history and memory, and some have even argued that history should be conceptualized as a form of remembering, or “mnemohistory,” which is “concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered” (Assmann, 1997, p. 9; see also Burke, 1997; Nora, 1992).
The younger adult subjects were also instructed to number the events recalled according to their historical chronological order after they had recalled them. Only one older adult performed this task following the initial recall phase, and this procedure was subsequently eliminated for the remaining older adult subjects in order to keep the time for completing the experiment to less than 90 min.
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Support for this research was provided by a Collaborative Activity grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (#220020041). Thanks to Ileana Culcea, Kristy Duprey, and Allison Obenhaus for assistance with data collection and coding and to Jeremy Burrus, Bridgid Finn, John Nestojko, Ruthie Shaffer, and Jim Wertsch for providing helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of the manuscript.
Example list of 10 events from the Revolutionary War that was presented to subjects in order to illustrate the types of events that someone might free recall for the Civil War, World War II, and the Iraq War
|1||The ride of Paul Revere|
|2||Battles of Concord and Lexington|
|3||The Boston Massacre|
|4||Washington crosses the Delaware River to capture Trenton|
|5||Treaty of Paris|
|6||The first Continental Congress|
|7||Declaration of Independence|
|8||Thomas Paine publishes "Common Sense"|
|9||Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown|
|10||The French alliance|
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Zaromb, F., Butler, A.C., Agarwal, P.K. et al. Collective memories of three wars in United States history in younger and older adults. Mem Cogn 42, 383–399 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-013-0369-7
- Collective memory
- Historical memory
- False consensus effect
- Aging and memory