8.9 Retroactive Interference: Definition & Examples

Jan 14, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch8 How the Brain Stores & Recalls Information

Retroactive interference occurs when newly acquired information causes us to have trouble remembering old information. Learn more about retroactive interference from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Retroactive Interference

Suppose that you were an international business major intent on working in Italy and France. You spent the last two years learning how to speak French and managed to master the language. This semester you are taking Italian and find it easy to learn since the two languages are similar.

During break, you decide to meet up with some of your friends, all of whom are fluent in French. You try to speak French to them, but find that you have difficulty remembering the vocabulary. Throughout the conversation, you end up speaking Italian instead of French, confusing your friends in the process. This is an example of retroactive interference, which occurs when newly acquired information inhibits our ability to recall previously acquired information.

Introduction to Interference Theory

Interference theory attempts to explain why we have trouble remembering things. Learning new material can sometimes interfere with our ability to recall previously learned material. The old information is still being stored in memory, but it cannot be retrieved due to the competition created by the information that has been newly acquired or previously learned. This is especially true if the new and old materials are similar in nature, such as the French and Italian languages.

Retroactive interference in particular involves unlearning. When retroactive interference occurs, we not only learn new information, but we also may unlearn the previous information. Using our example, you did not just learn Italian, but you also unlearned French in the process. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it can sure be frustrating!

Examples of Retroactive Interference Theory

A helpful way to remember the term ‘retroactive interference’ is to think about how we use the term ‘retro’ when we think about flashing back to a past time. When we have the problem of retroactive interference, we have trouble remembering what we knew in the past.

Let’s give you a vivid image to help you recall this term in the future. We’ll imagine that back in the 1970s you were a young twentysomething and were considered by many to be the disco king or queen of your hometown. You could boogie like no other. You knew all the moves and stole the attention of everyone at the club when you entered the dance floor.

Since then you’ve learned how to break dance, mosh, and do the latest line dances. In 2015, you even became the country line-dancing champion of Baltimore, Maryland.

Then your friend invites you to a retro 70s party. You can’t wait to bring out your old moves and impress everyone at the party. You don your sequins vest and get ready for your moment under the disco ball.

There’s only one problem: you can’t remember your old moves! You could line dance your heart out since you learned that most recently, but your other dance moves seem buried for now. Retroactive interference at the retro party: not groovy at all.

After some time and practice, you do recall the moves and manage to regain your 70s swagger on the dance floor. The information was there, but it had been set aside by your efforts in country line dancing.

Other retroactive interference examples could include:

  • Having trouble recalling how to play the guitar after learning how to play the piano
  • Not being able to remember your old password to your phone after you have changed the password to something new
  • Trouble recalling how to drive automatic transmission because you just learned how to drive a stick shift
  • Having difficulty styling your hair in a way you did years ago because you’ve been styling it differently in recent years
  • Forgetting details you had learned about the Revolutionary War now that you’ve moved on to studying the Civil War
  • Having trouble switching back to the operating system of a computer you used to own
  • Having difficulty playing soccer as well as you did in the past since you started playing lacrosse

Lesson Summary

Retroactive interference occurs when newly acquired information inhibits our ability to recall previously acquired information. Interference theory attempts to explain why we have trouble remembering things. Learning new material can sometimes interfere with our ability to recall previously learned material. This form of interference may also involve unlearning the old information, though it may be retrieved at a later point with help to recollect it.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Describe interference theory
  • Explain what retroactive interference is
  • Identify examples of retroactive interference
8.10 Types of Forgetting & Memory Decay
8.7 George Miller's Psychological Study to Improve Short-Term Memory