What Is Retroactive Interference in Cognitive Psychology?


Diego Sanchez

Retroactive interference is a concept in cognitive psychology that refers to the phenomenon where newly acquired information hinders the retrieval of previously learned information. In simple terms, it means that the new information interferes with the ability to recall old information.

Causes of Retroactive Interference
There are several reasons why retroactive interference might occur. One common cause is when two or more memories are similar in nature. For example, if you’re trying to memorize a list of words and then learn a new list of similar words, it can be difficult to recall the first list because the second one is so similar.

Another cause of retroactive interference is when there is overlap between the two sets of information being learned. For instance, if you’re studying for a history exam and then switch to studying for an English exam, there may be some overlapping concepts (such as literary devices used in historical texts) that could hinder your ability to recall specific details from your history studies.

Examples of Retroactive Interference
Here’s an example: imagine you’re learning how to play guitar and have just started memorizing some basic chords. You practice these chords frequently until they become second nature to you.

However, a few weeks later, you decide to learn some more advanced chords that use some of the same hand positions as those basic chords. Suddenly, you find yourself struggling to remember how to play those basic chords that were once so easy for you – this is retroactive interference at play.

Another example could be when learning different languages with similar vocabulary or grammar structures causing confusion and difficulty in recalling specific words or phrases.

Reducing Retroactive Interference

There are several techniques that can help reduce retroactive interference when trying to learn new information:

  • Spaced repetition: Rather than cramming all your learning into one session, space out your study sessions so that you have time to consolidate the information in between.
  • Using memory aids: Mnemonic devices and other memory aids can help you associate new information with existing knowledge, making it easier to recall later on.
  • Focus on one topic at a time: Avoid studying multiple subjects that are similar in nature simultaneously. Instead, focus on one topic until you have fully grasped and memorized all the necessary details before moving onto another.
  • Review previous learning: Regularly reviewing previously learned material can help reinforce long-term memory retention and reduce interference when learning new information.

The Bottom Line

Retroactive interference is a common occurrence that can hinder the ability to recall previously learned information. The good news is that there are several techniques you can use to reduce its impact, including spaced repetition, memory aids, and focusing on one topic at a time. By being aware of retroactive interference and taking steps to mitigate its effects, you can improve your overall ability to learn and retain new information.