Retroactive Interference: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

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.

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Definition and Example 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. According to interference theory, learning new material can sometimes interfere with our ability to recall previously learned material. This is especially true if the new and old material are similar in nature, such as the French and Italian languages. Interference theory assumes that 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.

There are three types of interference: output, proactive, and retroactive interference.

Output interference occurs when the act of recalling the information itself interferes with our ability to retrieve it. An example would be if trying to recall how to say 'hello' in French made it difficult for you to recall the language at all.

Proactive interference occurs when previously acquired information inhibits our ability to remember new information. An example would be if you have trouble learning Italian because it was very similar to French, which you had previously learned.

Retroactive interference happens in situations where there is newly acquired information that blocks our ability to recall previously acquired information, as in the example in the introduction. According to researchers, retroactive interference has a greater impact on memory storage than proactive interference. This is because retroactive interference also involves unlearning. When retroactive interference occurs, we not only learn new information, but we also unlearn the previous information. In the example in the introduction, you did not just learn Italian but you also unlearned French in the process.

Other examples of retroactive interference 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

Lesson Summary

Interference theory states that newly acquired information can sometimes compete with previously required information. The three types of interference are output, proactive, and retroactive interference. Retroactive interference occurs when newly acquired information inhibits our ability to recall previously acquired information. So the next time you find yourself having trouble recalling how to speak a different language after having learned a new one, remember that it does not mean that you completely forgot the previously learned language. You just need to work through the interference.

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