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Interference theory

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Interference theory

Interference theory is theory regarding human memory. Interference occurs in learning when there is an interaction between the new material and transfer effects of past learned behavior, memories or thoughts that have a negative influence in comprehending the new material.[1] Bringing to memory old knowledge has the effect of impairing both the speed of learning and memory performance. There are two main kinds of interference:

The main assumption of interference theory is that the stored memory is intact but unable to be retrieved due to competition created by newly acquired information.[1]


  • History 1
  • Proactive interference 2
    • Context 2.1
    • Brain structures 2.2
    • Research 2.3
      • With lists 2.3.1
      • Span performance 2.3.2
  • Retroactive interference 3
    • Iconic research 3.1
      • Modified (free) recall 3.1.1
      • Modified modified free recall 3.1.2
    • Theories 3.2
      • Competition 3.2.1
      • Associative Unlearning 3.2.2
    • Brain structures 3.3
    • Research 3.4
      • Pitch perception 3.4.1
      • Motor movement 3.4.2
      • Word tasks 3.4.3
  • Output interference 4
    • Research 4.1
      • Short-term memory 4.1.1
      • Long-term memory 4.1.2
      • Effects of age 4.1.3
  • Similar theories 5
    • Decay theory 5.1
      • Similarities 5.1.1
      • Differences 5.1.2
    • Dual task interference 5.2
      • Capacity sharing 5.2.1
      • Cross talk models 5.2.2
  • Neurobiology 6
    • Event-related fMRI studies 6.1
      • Stroop and Simon Task 6.1.1
  • Application 7
    • Advertising 7.1
      • Reducing competitive ad interference 7.1.1
  • See also 8
  • References 9


Müller used "associative Hemmung" (inhibition) as a blanket term for retroactive and proactive inhibition.[2]

The next major advancement came from American psychologist Benton J. Underwood in 1915. Underwood found that as the number of lists learned increased, the retention of the last list learned decreased after 24 hours.[3]

In 1924,

  • Barnes, J.M.; Underwood, B.J. (1959). "Fate" of first-list associations in transfer theory". Journal of Experimental Psychology 58 (2): 97–105.  
  • Bjork, R. A. (1992). Interference and memory. In L. R. Squire (Ed.), Encyclopedia of learning and memory (pp. 283–288). New York: Macmillan.
  • Briggs, G.E. (1954). "Acquisition, extinction, and recovery functions in retroactive inhibition". Journal of Experimental Psychology 47 (5): 285–293.  
  • McGeoch, J.A. (1932). "Forgetting and the law of disuse". Psychological review 39 (4): 352–370.  
  • Melton, A.W., & Irwin, J.M. (1940). The influence of degree of interpolated learning on retroactive inhibition and the overt transfer of specific responses. The American Journal of Psychology, LIII(2), 611-641.
  • Müller, G.E.; Pilzecker, A. (1900). "Experimentelle beiträge zur lehre von gedächtnis". Zeitschrift für Psychologie 1: 1–300. 
  • Salon, Heather. (2011). Dave Farrow: mind over memory. Retrieved from
  • Underwood, B.J. (1948). "'Spontaneous recovery' of verbal associations". Journal of Experimental Psychology 38 (4): 429–439.  
  1. ^ a b Tomlinson, T. D.; Huber, D. E.; Rieth, C. A.; Davelaar, E. J. (26 August 2009). "An interference account of cue-independent forgetting in the no-think paradigm". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (37): 15588–15593.  
  2. ^ a b Rieber, Robert W.; Salzinger, Kurt D., eds. (1998). Psychology theoretical-historical perspectives (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  
  3. ^ a b c Hilgard, Ernest R. (1987). Psychology in America : a historical survey. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  
  4. ^ Neel, Ann (1977). Theories of Psychology: a handbook (Revised and enlarged ed.). Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company.  
  5. ^ Still, A. W. (1 November 1969). "Proactive interference and spontaneous alternation in rats". Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 21 (4): 339–345.  
  6. ^ Keppel, Geoffrey; Underwood, Benton J. (1 October 1962). "Proactive inhibition in short-term retention of single items". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 1 (3): 153–161.  
  7. ^ Postman, Leo; Keppel, Geoffrey (1 January 1977). "Conditions of cumulative proactive inhibition.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 106 (4): 376–403.  
  8. ^ Underwood, Benton J. (1 January 1969). "Attributes of memory". Psychological Review 76 (6): 559–573.  
  9. ^ Wickens, D.; Moody, M.; Shearer, P. (1976). "Lack of Memory for Nonattended Items in Dichotic Listening.". Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2: 712–719.  
  10. ^ Jonides, J.; Nee, D.E. (2006). "Brain mechanisms of proactive interference in working memory". Neuroscience 139 (1): 181–193.  
  11. ^ Nee, DE; Jonides, J; Berman, MG (December 2007). "Neural mechanisms of proactive interference-resolution.". NeuroImage 38 (4): 740–51.  
  12. ^ Murdock, Bennet B. (1 November 1963). "Short-term memory and paired-associate learning". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 2 (4): 320–328.  
  13. ^ Greenberg, R.; Underwood, B.J. (August 1950). "Retention as a function of stage of practice". Journal of experimental psychology 40 (4): 452–7.  
  14. ^ Underwood, Benton J. (1 January 1957). "Interference and forgetting.". Psychological Review 64 (1): 49–60.  
  15. ^ a b May, CP; Hasher, L; Kane, MJ (September 1999). "The role of interference in memory span".  
  16. ^ Kane, Michael J.; Engle, Randall W. (1 January 2000). "Working-memory capacity, proactive interference, and divided attention: Limits on long-term memory retrieval.".  
  17. ^ Turvey, M. T.; Wittlinger, Roy P. (1 January 1969). "Attenuation of proactive interference in short-term memory as a function of cueing to forget.".  
  18. ^ Castro, Leyre; Ortega, Nuria; Matute, Helena (2002). "Proactive interference in human predictive learning".  
  19. ^ a b c d e Wohldmann, E.L., Healy, A.F., Bourne Jr., L.E. (2008). A mental practice superiority effect: Less retroactive interference and more transfer than physical practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34, 823-833.
  20. ^ Underwood, B. J. (1948). "'spontaneous recovery' of verbal associations". Journal of Experimental Psychology 38: 429–439.  
  21. ^ Muller, G. E., & Pilzecker, A. (1990). Experimental contributions to memory theory. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie Eganzungsband, 1, 1-300.
  22. ^ Melton, A.W.; Lackum, W. J. von (1941). "Retroactive and proactive inhibition in retention: evidence for a two-factor theory of retroactive inhibition". American Journal of Psychology 54: 157–173.  
  23. ^ a b Briggs, G. E. (1954). "Acquisition, extinction, and recovery functions in retroactive inhibition". Journal of Experimental Psychology 47: 285–293.  
  24. ^ a b Barnes, J. M; Underwood, B. J. (1959). "Fate of first-list associations in transfer theory". Journal of Experimental Psychology 58: 97–105.  
  25. ^ a b Solesio, E.; Lorenzo-López, L.; Campo, P.; López-Frutos, J.M.; Ruiz-Vargas, J.M.; Maestú, F. (2009). "Retroactive interference in normal aging: A magnetoencephalography study". Neuroscience Letters 456: 85–88.  
  26. ^ a b c Massaro, D.W. (1970). "Retroactive Interference in Short Term Memory for Pitch". Journal of Experimental Psychology 83: 32–39.  
  27. ^ Cattell, J. M. (1886). "The time it takes to see and name objects". Mind, 11, 63-65
  28. ^ a b c Barnes, J.M.; Underwood, B.J. (1959). "Fate of first list association in transfer theory". Journal of Experimental Psychology 58: 97–105.  
  29. ^ Tulving, E.; Arbuckle, T.Y. (1966). "Input and output interference in short-term associative memory". Journal of Experimental Psychology 72: 145–150.  
  30. ^ a b c Roediger, H.L., III, & Schmidt, S.R. (1980). Output interference in the recall of categorized and paired associative lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 91-105.
  31. ^ a b c d e f g Smith, A.D. (1971). "Output interference and organized recall from long-term memory". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour 10: 400–408.  
  32. ^ a b c Smith, A.D. (1975). Aging and Interference with Memory. Journal of Gerontology, 30, 319-325.
  33. ^ a b Marche, T.A., Howe, M.L., Lane, D.G., Owre, K.P., Briere, J.L. (2009). Invariance of Cognitive Triage in the Development of Recall in Adulthood. Memory, 17, 518-527.
  34. ^ Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W. & Anderson, A.C. (2009). Memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press
  35. ^ Brown, J. (1958). Some Test of the Decay Theory of Immediate Memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,10 , 12-21.
  36. ^ Grossberg, S. (1987) The Adaptive Brain: Vision, Speech, Language and Motor Control. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier
  37. ^ a b c d e f g h Pashler, H. (1994). "Dual Task Interference in Simple Tasks: Data and Theory". Psychological Bulletin 116: 220–244.  
  38. ^ Navon, D & Miller, J.O. (1987). Role of outcome conflict in dual task interference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 13, 438-448.
  39. ^ a b c d Peterson, B.S., Kane, M.J., Alexander, G.M., Lacadie, C., Skudlarski, P., Leung, H.C., Mat, J., Gore, J.C. (2002). An event-related functional MRI study comparing interference effects in the Simon and Stroop tasks. Cognitive Brain Research, 13, 427-440.
  40. ^ Burke, Raymond., Skrull, Thomas. (1988) Competitive Interference and Consumer Memory for Advertising. Journal of Consumer Research .Vol. 15: pp. 55-68
  41. ^ Unnava, H. Rao, Reducing Competitive Ad Interference , Journal of Marketing Research, 31:3 (1994:Aug.) p.403


  1. Neuroimaging
  2. Working Memory
  3. Memory inhibition
  4. Memory conformity
  5. Einstellung effect

See also

Repetition improves brand name recall when presented alone. When competitive advertising was presented it was shown that repetition provided no improvement in brand name recall over a single exposure. The competitive ads interfered with the added learning from repetition. However, when target brand name was shown using varying ad executions interference was reduced. Presenting ads in multi modalities (visual, auditory) will reduce possible interference because there are more associations or paths to cue recall than if only one modality had been used. This is the principle of multimedia learning. Also, interference is increased when competing ads are presented in the same modality. Therefore by presenting ads in multiple modalities the chance that the target brand has unique cues is increased.[41]

Reducing competitive ad interference

It has been demonstrated that recall will be lower when consumers have afterwards seen an ad for a competing brand in the same product class. Exposure to later similar advertisements does not cause interference for consumers when brands are rated on purchasing likelihood. This shows that information processing objective can moderate the effects of interference of competitive advertising. Competitive brand advertising not only interferes with consumer recall of advertising in the past but also interferes with learning new distinctive brand information in the future.[40]



The performance of Stroop and Simon tasks were monitored on 10 healthy young adults using magnetic resonance image (MRI) scanning.[39] Functional images were acquired at specific time intervals during each subject's scan.[39] Brain activation during the Stroop and Simon task was remarkably similar including anterior cingulate, supplementary motor cortex, visual association cortex, inferior temporal cortex, inferior parietal cortex, inferior frontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and caudate nuclei.[39] Interference effects in the Stroop and Simon tasks activate similar brain regions at similar time distributions.[39]

Stroop and Simon Task

Caudate Nucleus in red
Caudate Nucleus highlighted in red

Event-related fMRI studies

MRI brain
MRI of a human brain


Navon and Miller claim that Dual Task Interference is caused by outcome conflict which is a result of one task producing, "outputs, throughputs, or side effects that are harmful to the processing of the [other task]".[38] This is basically the concept of Interference Theory. The thoughts, outputs and side effects of one task either effect the previous or subsequent recall.

Crosstalk is used by engineers to discuss the degradation of communication channels due to context dependence.[37]

Cross talk is the communication between sensory inputs, processing and the thoughts of the individual.[37] The theory is that if two processes are being activated and they are not similar in any way (making cookies and going on vacation), the brain will be confused as separate cognitive areas are being activated and there is conflicting communication between the two.[37] Contrastingly, if the two processes are similar (making cookies and pouring milk), there will be less crosstalk and a more productive and uninterrupted cognitive processing.[37]

Cross talk models

Pashler proposed that the brain contains one mental entity to where all tasks must be carried out.[37] A real-life example of this could be going to the dentist; the only place to have cavities filled is at a dentist’s office. When the brain is attempting to complete two tasks, both tasks are present in the same mind area and compete for processing ability and speed.[37] This relates to interference theory as the tasks compete. Interference theory says that the learning of new information decreases the retrieval of older information and this is true in dual task interference. The dominant task of the two inhibits the other task from completion. It is presumed that the dominant task would be a new task as a previously accomplished task would already be stored in memory. The new task would then successfully be completed as more mind effort is required to complete a novel task and the previously completed task would not be completed as the new task dominated the mental capacity. Just as Interference Theory states, the completion of new tasks inhibits the completion of previously completed tasks due to capacity sharing.

Capacity sharing

Dual task interference is a kind of interference that occurs when two tasks are attempted simultaneously. Harold Pashler from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada wrote a paper summing up the theoretical approaches to dual task interference.[37] The basis of his research looked at, when one attempts two or more tasks at the same time, why in some cases is one successful in completing their task and in other cases not.[37]

Dual task interference

Decay and interference theory differ in that Interference Theory has a second stimulus that impedes the retrieval of the first stimulus. Decay Theory is caused by time itself. Decay Theory is a passive method of forgetting as no interference is produced.[36] Interference Theory is an active process because the act of learning new information directly impedes the recollection of previously stored information.




A practical example of decay theory is seen in the financial sector. If you open a bank account and not deposit or withdraw money from the account, after a period of time the bank will render the account dormant. The owner of the account then has to reopen the account for it to remain active. The bank account (the memory) is rendered dormant (the memory weakened) over time if there is not activity on the account (if the memory is not retrieved after a period of time).

Decay theory outlines that memories weaken over time despite consolidation and storing.[34] This is to say that although you remember a specific detail, over time you may have greater difficulty retrieving the detail you encoded. It has been suggested that the time interval between encoding and retrieval determines the accuracy of recall.[35]

Decay theory

Similar theories

Recent research of adult’s free recall and cognitive triage displayed similar findings of recall performance being poorer in older adults compared to younger adults.[33] Although it was also indicated that older adults had an increased susceptibility to output interference compared to younger adults and the difference increased as additional items were recalled.[33]

[32] In both

Effects of age

. amygdala and the hippocampus Both short and long term memories are centralized to the [31] In his first experiment word recall per category was greater at 60 sec than 30 sec when taking the last input category out to prevent [31] He conducted multiple experiments to determine the input conditioned necessary to produce Output Interference.[31] Smith found that if categories with corresponding items were successfully recalled, a systematic decline would occur when recalling the items in a category across the output sequence.

Long-term memory

Amygdala highlighted in red

Hippocampus highlighted in blue

Henry L. Roediger III and Schmidt found that the act of retrieval can serve as the source of the failing to remember, using multiple experiments that tested the recall of categorized and paired associative lists.[30] Three experiments were carried out where subjects were first presented with category lists and then asked to recall the items in the list after being shown the category name as a cue.[30] The further the test position from the category resulted in a decline of the recall of words. A fourth experiment revealed that only recent items were present in output interference in paired associative lists.[30]

Short-term memory


Output Interference occurs when the initial act of recalling specific information interferes with the retrieval of the original information.[29] An example scenario in which Output Interference might occur would be if one had created a list of items to purchase at a grocery store, but then forgot to take the list when leaving home. The act of remembering a couple items on that list decreases the probability of remembering the other items on that list.

Output interference

Retroactive Interference increases when the items are similar, therefore increasing association between them as shown by spreading activation.[28] Barnes and Underwood found that when participants in the experimental condition were presented with two similar word lists, the recollection of the first word list decreased with the presentation of the second word list.[28] This finding contrasts the control condition as they had little Retroactive Inference when asked to recall the first word list after a period of unrelated activity.[28]

Word tasks

Wohldmann, Healey and Bourne found that Retroactive Interference also affects retention of motor movements.[19] Researchers found that retroactive interference affects the performance of old motor movements when newly acquired motor movements are practiced.[19] Physical practice of newly executed motor movements decreased the retention and recall of previously learnt movements.[19] Despite the retroactive interference noted by Wohldmann et al., researchers noted that mental practice decreased the amount of retroactive interference, suggesting that mental practice is more flexible and durable over time.[19] This study of the superiority effect of physical practice is similar to the Word Superiority Effect made famous by Cattell.[27]

Motor movement

Retroactive Interference has also been investigated using pitch perception as the learning medium.[26] The researcher found that the presentation of subsequent stimuli in succession causes a decrease in recalled accuracy.[26] Massaro found that the presentation of successive auditory tones, confused perceptual short term memory, causing Retroactive Interference as the new tone inhibits the retrieval of previously heard tones.[26]

Pitch perception


Retroactive Interference has been localized to the left anterior ventral prefrontal cortex by magnetoencephalography (MEG) studies investigating Retroactive Interference and working memory in elderly adults.[25] The study found that adults 55–67 years of age showed less magnetic activity in their prefrontal cortices than the control group. Executive control mechanisms are located in the frontal cortex and deficits in working memory show changes in the functioning of this brain area.[25]

Brain structures

The Associative unlearning Hypothesis explains RI by saying that new associations replace the old associations in memory causing the participant to forget the initial associations. Barnes and Underwood argued that Ai-Ci responses still outnumbering Ai-Bi responses after the delay period supports the Associative Unlearning Hypothesis over Competition.[24]

Associative Unlearning

A standard explanation for the cause of RI is Competition. New associations compete with older associations and the more recent association would win out making it impossible to remember earlier associations. Spontaneous Recovery in MFR supports the claim of competition since after a rest period participants spontaneously remembered original pair associations that they were not able to remember right after the second test.[23]


The phenomenon of retroactive interference is highly significant in the study of memory as it has sparked a historical and ongoing debate in regards to whether the process of forgetting is due to the interference of other competing stimuli, or rather the unlearning of the forgotten material. The important conclusion one may gain from RI is that "forgetting is not simply a failure or weakness of the memory system" (Bjork, 1992), but rather an integral part of our stored knowledge repertoire. Although modern cognitive researchers continue to debate the actual causes of forgetting (e.g., competition vs. unlearning), retroactive interference implies a general understanding that additional underlying processes play a role in memory.


J.M. Barnes and B.J. Underwood (1959) expanded Briggs (1954) study by implementing a similar procedure. The main difference in this study, however, was that unlike Briggs (1954) "modified free recall" (MFR) task where participants gave one item responses, Barnes and Underwood asked participants to give both List 1 and List 2 responses to each cued recall task. Participants’ ability to recall both items was termed "modified modified free recall" (MMFR) technique. Equivocally to Briggs (1954) results, RI occurred when Ci recalled responses gradually came to exceed Bi responses. Barnes and Underwood argued that because there was "unlimited recall time" to produce multiple item responses, the fact that Ai-Ci responses still trumped Ai-Bi responses represented an account of unlearning.[24]

Modified modified free recall

Briggs (1954) study modeled McGeoch’s work on interference by setting the stage for a classic design of retroactive interference. In his study participants were asked to learn 12 paired associates to a criterion of 100%. To ensure parsimony, these pairs can be labeled as A1-B1-, A2-B2-…Ai-Bi (also called AB/AC paradigm). Briggs used a "modified free recall" technique by asking participants to recall an item when cued with Bi. Over multiple anticipation trials, participants learned Bi items through the prompt of Bi items. After perfecting Ai- Bi learning, participants were given a new list of paired associates to learn; however Bi items were replaced with Ci items (now given a list of A1-C1-, A2-C2-…Ai-Ci). As the learning of Ai-Ci pairs increased, the learning of Ai-Bi pairs decreased. Eventually recalling the Ci items exceeded the recall of the Bi items, representing the phenomenon of retroactive interference. A significant part of Briggs (1954) study was that once participants were tested after a delay of 24 hours the Bi responses spontaneously recovered and exceeded the recall of the Ci items. Briggs explained the spontaneous recovery illustration as an account of Ai-Bi items competing with Ai-Ci items or, as McGeoch would define it: "a resultant [of] momentary dominance" [23]

Modified (free) recall

Iconic research

If compared to proactive interference, studies show that Retroactive interference can have larger effects because of the fact that there is not only competition involved, but also unlearning.[22]

Retroactive interference (RI) is a phenomenon that occurs when newly learned information interferes with and impedes the recall of previously learned information.[19] RI is a result of decreased recall of the primary studied functions due to the learning and recall of succeeding functions [20] RI is a classic paradigm that was first officially termed by Muller.[21] These memory research pioneers demonstrated that filling the retention interval (defined as the amount of time that occurs between the initial learning stage and the memory recall stage) with tasks and material caused significant interference effects with the primary learned items.

Retroactive interference

Proactive interference has shown an effect during the learning phase in terms of stimuli at the acquisition and retrieval stages with behavioral tasks for humans, as found by Castro, Ortega and Matute.[18] With 106 participants, they investigated two main questions: if two cues are learned as predictors of the same outcome (one after the other), would the second-cue outcome association be retarded? And secondly, once the second association is fully learned, will there still be an effect on subsequent trials? The research, as predicted, showed retardation and impairment in associations, due to the effect of Proactive Interference.

To differ, others have tried to investigate the relation of proactive interference when cued to forget. Turvey and Wittlinger designed an experiment to examine the effects of cues such as "not to remember" and "not to recall" with currently learned material. While "not to remember" had a significant effect in reducing proactive interference, cued to "not to recall" previously encoded and stored information did not significantly reduce the effect. Therefore, these associated cues do not directly control the potential effect of proactive interference on short term memory span.[17]

Span performance refers to working memory capacity. It is hypothesized that span performance is limited in language comprehension, problem solving, and memory.[15] Proactive Interference affects susceptibility to span performance limitations, as span performance in later experimental trials were worse than performance in earlier trials.[15][16] With single tasks, proactive interference had less effect on participants with high working memory spans than those with low ones. With dual tasks, both types were similarly susceptible.

Span performance

Researchers have studied the joint influence of proactive and retroactive interference using a list of items to be remembered. As expected, recall was hampered by increasing the number items in a given list.[12] Proactive interference also affected learning when dealing with multiple lists. Researchers had participants learn a list of 10 paired adjectives.[13] The experimenters would consider a list to be learned if the participant could correctly recall eight of the ten items. After two days, participants could recall close to 70% of the items. However, those asked to memorize a new list the day after learning the first one had a recall of only 40%. Those who learned a third list recalled 25% of the items. Therefore, Proactive interference affected the correct recall of the last list learned, because of the previous one, or two. In terms of forgetting, the effect of Proactive interference was proven by further studies using different methods.[14] The effect of proactive interference was reduced when the test was immediate and when the new target list was obviously different from the previously learned lists.

With lists


The leading experimental technique for studying proactive interference in the brain is the "recent-probes" task, in which participants must commit a given set of items to memory and they are asked to recall a specific item indicated by a probe.[10] Using the recent-probes task and fMRIs, the brain mechanisms involved in the resolution of proactive interference have been identified as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the left anterior prefrontal cortex.[11]

Brain structures

Prefrontal Cortex
Prefrontal cortex

Proactive interference build up occurs with memories being learned in similar contexts. It is also associated with poorer list discrimination, which occurs when participants are asked to judge whether an item has appeared on a previously learned list.[7] If the items or pairs to be learned are conceptually related to one another, then proactive interference has a greater effect.[8] Delos Wickens discovered that proactive interference build up is released when there is a change to the category of items being learned, leading to increased processing in short term memory. [9]


Proactive interference is the "forgetting [of information] due to interference from the traces of events or learning that occurred prior to the materials to be remembered."[5] Proactive interference occurs when, in any given context, past memories inhibit an individual’s full potential to retain new memories. It has been hypothesized that forgetting working memories would be non-existent if not for proactive interference.[6]

Proactive interference


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