Retroactive Interference (Definition + Examples)

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!

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 occurs when new information interferes with your ability to recall old information. 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.  

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. 

Examples of Retroactive Interference

You have probably encountered retroactive interference a few times - it’s perfectly normal. Here are a few common examples of retroactive interference:

  • 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. 
  • When you see your ex, you accidentally call them by your current partner’s name. (Yikes!) 
  • You learn a series of choreography. When it’s time to perform the choreography, you mess up the first part, but nail the finale. 

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

In a different video, I mentioned that 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 teachers ability to grasp onto the names of the students they are currently teaching. 

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.

There Is Still A Lot to Be Learned 

I’m sure you have a lot of questions, especially after learning about proactive 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. 

Learning what you can about memory and how you store memories is a great way to begin the process of sharpening your memory. Getting a lot of sleep may also help to reduce cases of retroactive interference. (Then again, sleep helps memory storage at many levels.) Continue to watch these videos and actively focus on absorbing the information on memory. 

About the author 


Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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