Retroactive interference example (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss “Retroactive interference example”, also we will talk about the interference theory, proactive interference examples, strengths and weaknesses of the interference theory, and some additional considerations. 

Retroactive interference example

If you are thinking about a retroactive interference example, here are some:

  • Calling your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend with your new boyfriend/girlfriend’s name. Here, Old information prevents the recall of newer information.
  • Spending a few years learning a language, for example, Spanish. Recently, you have decided to learn French and test your fluency in Spanish, you may seem to only come up with words in French. 
  • You moved to a new address and after a while, you start forgetting what the previous address was, even if you have lived there for years.
  • You have learned some new dance steps and when you have to use them on the dance floor, you forget the first part but remember the last steps you learned. 
  • If you are a babysitter and you take care of a few babies throughout the week, you could have struggled to remember the instructions the parents gave you yesterday and all you can remember is the instructions the parents of baby no. 2 (who you are currently taking care of). 
  • If you are a new student, you may remember better what you have learned at the end of the school year when compared to the beginning of the school year.
  • If you have a new phone number, you may have trouble remembering the old one because you are not using it anymore and there is no need now to have that information stored.
  • You could have learned all the names of the countries of a certain continent and then you may have found yourself learning the countries of another continent but you may keep mixing them.
  • If you are a musician and you have learned a new piece, you may find that the new song makes it more difficult to recall a previous piece you have practiced and learned already for some time.

One of the strategies that can help to overcome this interference is overlearning. This involves rehearsing new material over and over past the point of acquisition. 

Let’s take a look at what retroactive and proactive interference means and some of the theory behind it.

Interference theory

Psychologists have been very interested in how the human memory works, why we forget, and what makes us remember.

In the interference theory, which is one of the many theories that try to give an explanation as to why we forget and how memories seem to compete with each other. 

Interference happens when information that is similar,  ‘interferes’ with information that someone is trying to retrieve or recall.

According to Saul McLeod from, “Interference is an explanation for forgetting in long term memory, which states that forgetting occurs because memories interfere with and disrupt one another, in other words forgetting occurs because of interference from other memories (Baddeley, 1999).”

However, we could trace it back to Muller and Pilzecker in 1900, where they conducted influential studies on retroactive interference.

They have suggested that new memories may require a period of time to become consolidated in our memory. 

Moreover, as indicated by Cynthia Vinney, “Studies on interference date back over 100 years.

One of the first was conducted by John A. Bergstrom in the 1890s. Participants sorted cards into two piles, but when the location of the second pile was changed, participants performed more slowly.

This suggested that after learning the initial rules of card sorting they interfered with learning the new rules.”

Retroactive and Proactive interference

Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with your ability to recall older information.

Things that are more recent are easier to remember when compared to old information. 

In contrast, proactive interference is when old memories interfere with the ability to encode and retrieve newer information.

This happens a lot with phone numbers when trying to recall a new phone number and the old phone number you have known for years interferes with the recall to the point it makes it very hard to remember the new phone number.

In other words and according to McLeod from

1. “Proactive interference (pro=forward) occurs when you cannot learn a new task because of an old task that had been learned. 

When what we already know interferes with what we are currently learning – where old memories disrupt new memories.”

2. “Retroactive interference (retro=backward) occurs when you forget a previously learned task due to the learning of a new task. In other words, later learning interferes with earlier learning – where new memories disrupt old memories.”

Proactive interference examples

Many of us at some point have experienced and are likely to keep experiencing the following scenarios:

  • Every new year, we may find ourselves struggling in January to write the new year when writing dates and all we can recall is using the old year. This is usually very common when we are studying and we come back from the holidays and we start to write a new lesson or when taking a new test. 
  • If you have been married, you may have introduced yourself using your previous last name and not your married name without even noticing you did at first.
  • If you have changed your phone number, you may have found yourself giving someone your old phone number because we are still getting used to the new one.
  •  If you have read a book you have read before, you could have felt how all of a sudden it feels like a completely new book. This could happen because we either don’t remember the story that well or do remember some things vaguely and our mind is trying to fill in the gaps of when we read the book for the first time.

Strengths and weaknesses of the theory

This theory is supported by the studies from Baddeley and Hitch in 1977 and according to “ Most people can think of times when interference in both directions have occurred.

This means that the theory makes sense and there are plenty of everyday examples of it occurring.”

In contrast, weaknesses point to having a limited scope only explaining the “lack of recall when information in a similar format prevents recall.

This means that there are many types of recall that are not explained by this theory.”

Moreover, while there is a lot of evidence for interference, many of the studies are conducted using tasks that are performed a short time apart which in sum, reduces the validity and the possibility of generalization. 

According to Martin Luenendonk, “What the critics of the Interference theory have to say is that its main weakness comes from the lack of evidence that this interference could occur in all the information we retain and that just the information in a similar format causes the interference.”

This would mean that interference is more likely to happen in situations when old and new memories compete with each other based on a similar subject/topic.

A perfect example of this could be learning a new language where both proactive and retroactive interference seems to disrupt the language we have already learned or the new one we are trying to learn.

Interference vs Odor Memory

It seems this type of memory is not disrupted by proactive or interactive interference.

Have you noticed how you can smell certain perfume in someone you don’t know and recognize exactly the name of the brand of such perfume?

Well, we have the ability to memorize smells and fragrances that we can recall without a problem. 

Experts believe we have developed this ability to memorize certain scents through evolution when we were cavemen.

This was extremely helpful to detect danger through certain smells that we have already smelled and know we know they can potentially be harmful.

As indicated by Martin Luenendonk from Cleverism, “All in all, this is an interesting point to make when talking about the interference theory, whether it serves as an argument for those who are opposed to it or not is a matter of psychological studies which should be kept in the laboratories for now.”

Why is this blog about Retroactive interference example important?

Knowing about retroactive interference examples can help us understand why these interferences occur and how we could stop or minimize their effect since it can put us in some awkward situations we don’t really want to be in.

For instance, as we have indicated when we learn a new language, we seem to have struggled with it since we are getting bombarded by the grammar of the previous language interfering with our ability to learn the new one.

Moreover, there are plenty of strategies that you can implement to avoid interference if you find yourself struggling frequently.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Retroactive interference example

What is proactive interference example?

A proactive interference example could be when you have difficulty remembering a friend’s new phone number after having learned the old phone number.

Proactive interference refers to the ‘interference’ that is produced after learning something upon the acquisition and retrieval of new information. 

What is retroactive interference in memory?

Retroactive interference in memory happens when you forget something you have previously learned due to the learning of new things when consolidating new memories.

Simply said, later learning interferes with new learning.

What are proactive and retroactive interference?

Proactive interference happens when your past memories interfere with retaining new memories and retroactive interference is when new memories interfere with retaining old memories. 

What causes retroactive interference?

Retroactive interference occurs when you forget something you have learned before due to the process of learning something new.

Meaning, later learning will interfere with earlier learning (new memories vs old memories).

Moreover, new learning can sometimes cause confusion with previous learning (

What are the two types of interference?

The two types of interference are constructive and destructive.

The first occurs when the wave amplitudes reinforce each other, building a wave of even greater amplitude, while the second type occurs when the wave amplitudes oppose each other, resulting in waves of reduced amplitude (

References “Proactive and Retroactive Interference”

McLeod, S. (2018) Proactive and Retroactive Interference. Retrieved from “Retroactive Interference (Definition + Examples)”

Cherry, K. (2020, Apr.) Types of Interference in psychology. Retrieved from

Luenendonk, M. (2019, Aug.) Proactive and Retroactive Interference Explained. Retrieved from