Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior

Living Edition
| Editors: Jennifer Vonk, Todd Shackelford

Retroactive Interference

  • Paula Alfonso-Arias
  • Susana Carnero-SierraEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_1830-1



Retroactive interference arises when a new learning affects a previous recall. For instance, in an experimental procedure, a list of words, A, is presented. After that, a new list, B, is shown. Retroactive interference comes when the learning of the new list (B) affects the recall of the list first presented (A).


A common and annoying effect in learning is when new data modify previous information. For example, a pregraduate student is sometimes confused when he/she needs to study two lessons, one after the other. When the student tries to remember the first lesson, it is possible that the information of the second lesson interrupts the learning of the first lesson. This situation is clearly stated and summarized in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

Retroactive interference diagram

Forgetting: Time Passing or Interference?

This interference effect is related with the nature of forgetting (Baddeley et al. 2009). The first author interested in the dynamic of forgetfulness was Hermann Ebbinghaus. This scientist, crucial in the study of the roots of memory, drew the forgetting curve (Ebbinghaus 1885) to try to explain how memories vanish along time. Ebbinghaus proposed that to forget is due to the decline of the information by the passing of time.

After Ebbinghaus, theories based in association started to claim the concept of interference as the motor of forgetting (Ruiz-Vargas 2010). According to interference theory, the loss of information is not only due to the passing of time, but could also be caused by different situations and competing cues in the learning process and subsequent memories.

To unravel if forgetting is due to time passing or mediated by other experience interferences, the paradigm of dream and wakefulness was used by memory topic researches. In this procedure, the dream phases are used to induce time lapses without interferences or physiological changes due to learning in wakefulness.

Jenkins and Dallenbach (1924) were pioneers in the use of this paradigm. In their study, students from Cornell University had to learn series of 10 meaningless syllables. Series were repeated until they were totally learned by participants. When they were able to correctly repeat all the stimuli, the series were later recovered in a 1, 2, 4, and 8 h delay. This recall test could be in a dream condition or in a wakefulness condition. Results showed that forgetfulness was higher in wakefulness than in the dream condition. These data suggested that forgetting was not only caused by the passing of time, but was also influenced by experiences in the wakefulness phase.

Anyway, this procedure has problems because of different levels of processing occurring during sleep, and it is not equivalent to not having experiences on processing. On the other hand, another hypothesis considers that consolidation during dream phase could enhance the recall (Mercer 2015).

Experimental Paradigm

If we want to induce an experimental retrospective interference effect in memory, the classic paradigm of the paired-associate learning can be used. In this procedure, a control and an experimental group learn a list of paired words. The first of the pair is the stimulus and the second is called response (for instance, in table-girl, table is the stimulus and girl the response). After the list of associate-paired words was presented, the experimental group is exposed to a second list, in which the stimulus is the same, but the response changes (table-picture, for example). On the contrary, the control group only receives the first list. Both groups are tested at the end of the training. In this test, the stimuli are presented, and the participants have to give the response of the first list. This experimental set reproduces precisely the conditions of retroactive interference (see Fig. 2 for details); therefore, the difference in correct recalls between both groups will measure the effect of retroactive interference.
Fig. 2

Example of stimuli for a pair-associated experiment to study retrospective interference

Variables that Modulate the Interference

Within the variables implicated in the modulation of interference theory, time interval between the first and the second list presentation can influence interference. Another relevant factor that modulates the strength of information overlap is the similarity of the information. The more similarity in stimuli to recall, the more interference. For example, McGeoch and McDonald (1931) asked their participants to learn a list of adjectives. One group learnt a list and took a rest after for 10 min. The other group learnt the list and another list of different adjectives immediately afterward. Both groups were tested and asked for the first list. They also manipulated the similarity of the list in the last group and found that the highest forgetting rate was observed when the second list presented synonymous of the first list. This study and others showed that the more similar the material to learn is, the most marked retroactive interference effects are found.



  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. (2009). Memory. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  2. Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Über das gedächtnis Leipzig: Dunker (Trad. Nueva York: Dover, 1964).Google Scholar
  3. Jenkins, J. G., & Dallenbach, K. M. (1924). Obliviscence during sleep and waking. American Journal of Psychology, 35, 605–612.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. McGeoch, J. A., & McDonald, W. T. (1931). Meaningful relation and retroactive inhibition. American Journal of Psychology, 43, 579–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidad de OviedoOviedoSpain

Section editors and affiliations

  • Valerie Dufour
    • 1
  1. 1.Cognitive and Social Ethology TeamCNRSStrasbourgFrance