Memory & Cognition

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 759–767 | Cite as

The role of interference in memory span



In two experiments, we investigated the possibility that susceptibility to proactive interference (PI) affects performance on memory span measures. We tested both younger and older adults (older adults were tested because of the suggestion that they are differentially susceptible to PI). We used two different span measures and manipulated testing procedures to reduce PI for these tasks. For older adults, span estimates increased with each PI-reducing manipulation; for younger adults, scores increased when multiple PI manipulations were combined or when PI-reducing manipulations were used in paradigms in which within-task PI was especially high. The findings suggest that PI critically influences span performance. We consider the possibility that interference-proneness may influence cognitive behaviors previously thought to be governed by capacity.


  1. Allport, A. (1989). Visual attention. In M. I. Posner (Ed.),Foundations of cognitive science (pp. 631–682). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. R. (1983).The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Baddeley, A. (1986).Working memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Baddeley, A. D., &Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.),The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  5. Borkowski, J. G. (1965). Interference effects in short-term memory as a function of level of intelligence.American Journal of Mental Deficiency,70, 458–465.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Charness, N. (1987). Component processes in bridge bidding and novel problem-solving tasks.Canadian Journal of Psychology,41, 223–243.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Conrad, R., &Hull, A. J. (1964). Information, acoustic confusion and memory span.British Journal of Psychology,55, 429–432.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Conway, A., &Engle, R. (1994). Working memory and retrieval: A resource-dependent inhibition model.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,123, 354–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Craik, F. I. M., &Byrd, M. (1982). Aging and cognitive deficits: The role of attentional processes. In F. I. M. Craik & S. Trehub (Eds.),Aging and cognitive processes (pp. 191–211). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  10. Crowder, R. G. (1976).Principles of learning and memory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  11. Daneman, M., &Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,19, 450–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Daneman, M., &Green, I. (1986). Individual differences in comprehending and producing words in context.Journal of Memory & Language,25, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Daneman, M., &Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,3, 422–433.Google Scholar
  14. Dempster, F. N. (1981). Memory span and short-term memory capacity: A developmental study.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,4, 419–431.Google Scholar
  15. Dempster, F. N. (1985). Proactive interference in sentence recall: Topicsimilarity effects and individual differences.Memory & Cognition,13, 81–89.Google Scholar
  16. Dempster, F. N., &Cooney, J. B. (1982). Individual differences in digit span, susceptibility to proactive interference, and aptitude/achievement test scores.Intelligence,6, 399–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Educational Testing Service (1976).Kit of factor-referenced tests. Princeton, NJ: Author.Google Scholar
  18. Engle, R. W., Cantor, J., &Carullo, J. J. (1992). Individual differences in working memory and comprehension: A test of four hypotheses.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,18, 972–992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Engle, R.W., Carullo, J. J., &Collins, K.W. (1991). Individual differences in working memory for comprehension and following directions.Journal of Educational Research,84, 253–262.Google Scholar
  20. Engle, R.W., Conway, R., Tuholski, S.W., &Shisler, R. J. (1995). A resource account of inhibition.Psychological Science,6, 122–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fry, A., &Hale, S. (1996). Processing speed, working memory, and fluid intelligence: Evidence for a developmental cascade.Psychological Science,7, 237–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gerard, L., Zacks, R. T., Hasher, L., &Radvansky, G. A. (1991). Age deficits in retrieval: The fan effect.Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences,46, 131–136.Google Scholar
  23. Gick, M. L., Craik, F. I. M., &Morris, R. G. (1988). Task complexity and age differences in working memory.Memory & Cognition,16, 353–361.Google Scholar
  24. Hamm, V. P., &Hasher, L. (1992). Age and the availability of inferences.Psychology & Aging,7, 56–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hartman, M., &Hasher, L. (1991). Aging and suppression: Memory for previously relevant information.Psychology & Aging,6, 587–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hasher, L., &Zacks, R. T. (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. In G. H. Bower (Ed.),The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 22, pp. 193–225). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  27. Hasher, L., Zacks, R. T., &May, C. P. (1999). Inhibitory control, circadian arousal, and age. In A. Koriat & D. Gopher (Eds.),Attention and performance XVII (pp. 653–675). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  28. Jensen, A. R. (1964).Individual differences in learning: Interference factor (Final Rep., Cooperative Research Project No. 1897). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education.Google Scholar
  29. Just, M. A., &Carpenter, P. A. (1980). A theory of reading: From eye fixations to comprehension.Psychological Review,87, 329–354.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Just, M. A., &Carpenter, P. A. (1992). A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in working memory.Psychological Review,99, 122–149.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Kahneman, D. (1973).Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  32. Kane, M. J., &Hasher, L. (1995). Interference. In G. Maddox (Ed.),Encyclopedia of aging (2nd ed., pp. 514–516). New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  33. Kausler, D. H. (1974).Psychology of verbal learning and memory. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  34. Kyllonen, P. C., &Christal, R. E. (1990). Reasoning ability is (little more than) working-memory capacity?!Intelligence,14, 389–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kyllonen, P. C., &Stephens, D. L. (1990). Cognitive abilities as determinants of success in acquiring logic skill.Learning & Individual Differences,2, 129–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lustig, C., & Hasher, L. (1998).Working memory span: The role of interference from the past. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  37. Masson, M. E. J., &Miller, J. A. (1983). Working memory and individual differences in comprehension and memory of text.Journal of Educational Psychology,75, 314–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McDowd, J. M., Oseas-Kreger, D. M., &Filion, D. L. (1995). Inhibitory processes in cognition and aging. In F. N. Dempster & C. J. Brainerd (Eds.),Interference and inhibition in cognition (pp. 363–401). San Diego: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Navon, D. (1988a). The importance of being visible: On the role of attention in a mind viewed as an anarchic intelligence system. I. Basic tenets.European Journal of Cognitive Psychology,1, 191–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Navon, D. (1988b). The importance of being visible: On the role of attention in a mind viewed as an anarchic intelligence system. II. Basic tenets.European Journal of Cognitive Psychology,1, 215–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rabinowitz, J. C., Craik, F. I. M., &Ackerman, B. P. (1982). A processing resource account of age differences in recall.Canadian Journal of Psychology,36, 325–344.Google Scholar
  42. Rosner, S. R. (1972). Primacy in preschooler’s short-term memory: The effects of repeated tests and shift-trials.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,13, 220–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Salthouse, T. A. (1988). The role of processing resources in cognitive aging. In M. L. Howe & C. J. Brainerd (Eds.),Cognitive development in adulthood (pp. 185–239). New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  44. Shah, P., &Miyake, A. (1996). The separability of working memory resources for spatial thinking and language processing: An individual differences approach.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,125, 4–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shute, V. J. (1991). Who is likely to acquire programming skills?Journal of Educational Computing Research,7, 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Traxler, A. J. (1973). Retroactive and proactive inhibition in young and elderly adults using an unpaced modified recall test.Psychological Reports,32, 215–222.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Underwood, B. J. (1957). Interference and forgetting.Psychological Review,64, 49–60.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Watkins, O. C., &Watkins, M. J. (1975). Build-up of proactive inhibition as a cue-overload effect.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory,1, 442–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wickens, D. D., &Cammarata, S. A. (1986). Response class interference in STM.Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society,24, 266–268.Google Scholar
  50. Wickens, D. D., &Gittis, M. M. (1974). The temporal course of recovery from interference and degree of learning in the Brown-Peterson paradigm.Journal of Experimental Psychology,102, 1021–1026.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Winocur, G., &Moscovitch, M. (1983). Paired associate learning in institutionalized and noninstitutionalized old people: An analysis of interference and context effects.Journal of Geronotology,38, 455–464.Google Scholar
  52. Young, C.W., &Supa, M. (1941). Mnemic inhibition as a factor in the limitation of the memory span.American Journal of Psychology,54, 546–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Zacks, R. T., Radvansky, G. A., &Hasher, L. (1996). Studies of directed forgetting in older adults.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,22, 143–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cynthia P. May
    • 1
  • Lynn Hasher
    • 2
  • Michael J. Kane
    • 3
  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucson
  2. 2.Duke UniversityDurham
  3. 3.University of South CarolinaColumbia

Personalised recommendations