Retroactive Interference (Definition + Examples)

If you’re here because you want to know the definition of retroactive interference, or maybe you’d like to see some examples… you’re in luck! This page is all about the wild phenomenon that is retroactive interference, and how it can have a serious effect on our memories. You’ll also learn how to prevent retroactive interference.

Let’s say you spent a few years learning a second language in high school – in this example, we’ll use French. But lately, you’ve been trying to teach yourself Spanish. When you try to go back and test your knowledge in French, you can only seem to come up for the words in Spanish.

If you’ve read the other article on Proactive Interference, this scenario sounds kind of familiar. When I was describing proactive interference, the opposite occurred. When you try to recall Spanish words and can only think of French ones, you are experiencing proactive interference.

This video is about the other type of interference: retroactive interference.

What Is Retroactive Interference?

Retroactive interference, also known as retroactive inhibition, occurs when new information interferes with your ability to recall information that you could remember previously. Things that are more recent and fresh are easy to remember, but old information feels far away, even if you spent more time learning it. 

retroactive interference

Postman Study

A study from 1960 is one of the earliest examples of identifying retroactive interference.

The study contained two groups. Both groups were given a list of paired words to memorize. The second group was given a separate list of paired words. After the second list was introduced, both groups were asked to recall items from the first list.

The results showed that the group who were given the second list had a harder time remembering the first list. The new information interfered with their ability to recall older information.

Serial Position Effect

New information is more fresh than old information – this sounds like common sense. It also sounds like another theory in the study of memory. The Serial Position Effect shows that when people have to remember a list of information, they are most likely to remember the information learned last. The information learned first is also commonly prominent, and information learned in the middle of the list is most likely to be forgotten.

lists

Our short-term memory storage is limited, so unless information is repeated and considered to be prominent, many items on the list will take a back seat to information that was more recently picked up by the brain.

Which of the Following Scenarios Is An Example of Retroactive Interference?

Quiz time! Before we get into examples of retroactive interference, test your knowledge. This information is new and fresh, so you should hopefully get the right answer!

1. You move to a new address. After a while, you start to forget your previous address, even if you lived there for a long time.

2. When you see your ex, you accidentally call them by your current partner’s name. (Yikes!)

3. You learn a series of choreography. When it’s time to perform the choreography, you mess up the first part, but nail the finale.

4. You witness a car accident, and you are sure you saw the driver paying full attention at the wheel. As reports come out that say that the driver was texting and driving, you begin to question your memory.

Which of these examples is retroactive interference? See the answer at the bottom of this page! 

More Examples of Retroactive Interference

Example 1: Instructions for Pet-sitting

People who take care of pets or walk dogs for a living often get very specific instructions from their clients. One owner may feed their dog ¼ cup of food every morning and another may feed their cat a whole can of food at night. If you visit multiple homes throughout the day, you might find yourself confusing instructions. You arrive at a house and try to remember what the owner said the previous week about how to care for their pup. All you can pull up, however, is the instructions for the dog you visited this morning. The most recent information is getting in the way.

Example 2: Learning A Dance Routine

A dance routine involves a lot of different steps set to a verse, chorus, or an instrumental break. Often, the choreographer will break the dance down piece by piece until the dance is finished. If they don’t go back to review the beginning of the dance throughout the lesson, you might have a hard time remembering the steps to start off the number. This is retroactive interference at work. The more recent steps cloud your memory, even if you had nailed the beginning of the dance earlier in the day.

Example 3: Taking a Test After Time Has Passed

Retroactive interference often occurs when the new and old information is similar, but not always. If you have a test, you are likely to study the information on that test at least once. But let’s say you study for the test on Monday and take it on Friday. During the week, you have learned a lot of new information and created a lot of different memories. It might be difficult to pull up the memories you made Monday while studying because your schedule from Tuesday or lessons from Wednesday keep popping up in your mind.

Example 4: New and Old Students

Proactive interference can affect a teacher’s ability to learn their students’ names. The memory of old students may be more prominent and interfere with the teacher’s ability to grasp the names of the students they are currently teaching.

teacher and student

But what happens if another student decides to come back and visit their teacher? The teacher may scramble for the name of the old student, particularly if they weren’t so memorable. Names of students they have had more recently may interfere with the ability to dig up the old student’s name. This is an example of retroactive interference.

Retroactive Interference and the Misinformation Effect

Memory comes in many forms: credit card numbers, emotions, and what we saw when we experienced dramatic events in our lives. Some memories are trivial. Others shape the course of our entire lives. When retroactive interference occurs and distorts episodic memories, we experience the misinformation effect.

Episodic memories play out like an episode in our minds, with us at the center taking in sights, smells, sounds, etc. Let’s say we can recall an “episode” in which we are bitten by a dog. There are so many factors to this “episode,” from the size of the dog to where we were to what we were doing before the dog bite. Changing the smallest detail can alter the narrative in that episode.

In early recollections of this episode, you remember that the dog seemed to come out of nowhere to play with you and eventually, bite you. The bite was no one’s fault but the dog’s. You were at an off-leash park and the dog was just overstimulated. But later, you watch a movie where the villain instructs a dog to bite someone. You also hear a news story about people telling their dogs to bite people at public parks. As you think to yourself, “Did someone tell the dog to bite me?” you start to picture this happening in your mind. As you play with this memory, the idea that someone caused this bite sticks. In later recollections, you always mention a person that told the dog to bite you.

This is an example of retroactive interference and the misinformation effect. Misleading information caused you to remember the incident differently.

Obviously, this can have serious effects. If you were to pursue a case against the person who apparently told their dog to bite you, they could get in trouble. The entire story changes with this information. We must be careful with our memories, and consider that retroactive interference can happen to anyone.

Examples of Retroactive Interference and Leading Questions

Knowing this, the danger of “leading questions” is even more fascinating. Leading questions are used in interrogations, courtrooms, and even in therapists’ offices. They are questions that lead a person to a certain conclusion, even if they wouldn’t have come to that conclusion on their own.

If you have seen Making a Murderer, you have seen examples of this. Brendan Dassey was coerced into admitting a false confession. There are many questions as to whether Brendan knew what he was saying when he confessed. Did retroactive interference change his memories of the night that Teresa Halbach was killed? Or did his false confession not reflect his memories? Either way, the effect of leading questions can be retroactive interference.

How to Prevent Retroactive Interference

Retroactive interference can affect memory recall. It doesn’t have to. Keeping your memory sharp will prevent information from wiggling its way into the “narrative” of your life and everything that you have experienced.

Write in a journal. If you want to get a clear picture of something immediately after it happened, write it down. Take notes of the way your car looked after an accident, or record your feelings nightly in a journal. Journaling improves working memory, and having a physical account of an event will confirm whether or not new information has made its way into your memory!

Take fish oil supplements. They sound gross, but these supplements are a great way to preserve long-term memory!

Get some z’s: Getting a lot of sleep may also help to reduce cases of retroactive interference. Eight hours of interrupted sleep helps memory storage at many levels!

Keep learning about memory: Learning what you can about memory and how you store memories is a great way to begin the process of sharpening your memory.  Continue to watch these videos, read these articles, and actively focus on absorbing the information on memory.

There Is Still A Lot to Be Learned

I’m sure you have a lot of questions after learning about proactive and retroactive interference. Why do old memories interfere with new memories in some cases, but in other cases the complete opposite occurs? Why does interference take place at all? And how can you train your brain to reduce interference?

Unfortunately, cognitive psychologists don’t have all the answers. There is still a lot of research to be done in the field of interference and false memory. The research that has been done has also primarily dealt with lists of information, as opposed to learning a new language or learning information in other formats. False memories and the misinformation effect can also be hard to prove if looking at case studies or examples from everyday life.

Answer to the Quiz

You’ve made it. So which of the above statements was an example of retroactive interference? They all are! And example 4 is an example of the misinformation effect at work.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.