15 Proactive Interference Examples

child thinking up proactive inference examples while stroking chin

Proactive interference occurs when previously learned information disrupts learning new information. For example, you might struggle to remember your new phone number because your mind automatically goes back to your old phone number every time.

This can happen during either the acquisition or retrieval stage.

Information already in memory can both:

  • interfere with inputting new data
  • interfere with accessing recently-acquired data

In both cases, we’ll be experiencing examples of proactive interference.

The opposite phenomenon is called retroactive interference.

Examples of Proactive Interference

1. Trouble Learning a New Route to Work

Summary: If your route to work changes, you might end up continuing to drive the old route on ‘autopilot’, causing you to frequently have to turn around to get back on track.

If we live in a certain home for many years, then we get very accustomed to driving one particular route to work each morning. In fact, the route may become so firmly ingrained in our memory that we can drive there almost without thinking.

But then, if we to a new office on the other side of town, we may find ourselves making some wrong turns on some of the same roads we took before. Instead of turning right on Main Street to get to the new office, we end up turning left toward the old office, like we have been doing for so many years.

This “habit” can be difficult to break.

In this example, our previous driving route is interfering with our ability to change to a new route. Our pattern of driving has already been set and it is difficult to change so quickly.

2. Trouble Learning New Computer Shortcuts

Summary: When software updates and changes its keyboard shortcuts or menu items, we often find ourselves still using the old drop-down menus or shortcut keys and getting frustrated that they no longer work!

Using office software saves workers all over the world incredible amounts of time. Believe it or not, there was a time when people had to actually put a sheet of paper in a machine and type each letter on it one-by-one.

If a mistake was made it had to be blocked out with white paint and then you had to wait for it to dry.

Today, mistakes can be omitted easily and efficiently…no paint needed. However, for some reason, software developers are continuously “upgrading” their programs to make them better. That’s understandable.

But a lot of times it also means they change how to carry-out various functions. Sometimes they change the icons or change the steps needed to perform an operation you have used a lot in the past.

That means we have to learn the new steps even though we are already so used to the other way. Proactive interference can be frustrating.

3. Difficulty Learning Two Foreign Languages

Summary: When learning a third language, we find ourselves constantly slipping into the second language which is more engrained in our minds. This happens to me all the time – I try to speak French and I end up saying things in Spanish!

Learning one foreign language can be difficult enough, but learning two can be even more challenging.

In this case, a person might experience significant proactive interference between the language they learned first and the second one.

The first foreign language may already be firmly stored in memory. As a person attempts the second foreign language, they find it hard to commit the words to memory.

Later, when they try to recall those second language words, the words from the first keep popping up.

For example, they have learned how to say “I want to buy two mangoes” in the first language. But every time they try to say the same thing in the second language, it always includes some of the words from the first one. This is a real common phenomenon for people that can speak multiple languages.

4. Difficulty Remembering a New Phone Number

Summary: When we get a new phone number, we often accidentally give people our old phone number out of habit.

Getting a new phone number can be a bit of an inconvenience. The main problem is that every time you have to fill-out a new form, at the bank or in your HR department, you start to write your old phone number.

This is a good example of proactive interference because your first phone number has been committed to memory for so long that it automatically comes to mind when you think “phone number.”

Although this can be a bit of a hassle, it will most likely go away after a few weeks.

5. Using your Old Boyfriend’s Name by Accident

Summary: If you have a slip of the tongue and accidentally refer to your new boyfriend by the name of your old boyfriend, you’ve fallen foul of proactive interference.

This may be the most dangerous example of proactive interference of all.

After dating one person for a long time, maybe even years, everything we know about them becomes like second nature; what they like to eat, things they like to do, even catch-phrases they use during special moments.

And then one day, they break up with you.

All of a sudden, everything you knew about them can no longer be used. Some of us might like to delete it all from memory, like wiping the hard drive on our computer.

Unfortunately, that can’t be done with humans.

This can be a big problem when we re-enter the dating world. Going out on a new date involves the risk of accidently referring to our date using our ex’s name. That would not be a good way to start a new relationship.  

6. Learning to Play a New Version of an Old Song

Summary: Musicians develop muscle memory of songs. When they are asked to insert a new chorus or stanza, they’ll often forget because their muscles automatically start playing the old tune.

When a band is together for a long time, they can build quite the inventory of songs.

After playing the same songs for so many years, sometimes a band will like to reinvent some of those old tunes. So, they create new versions that sound more up-do-date.

This is a good strategy to keep up with modern times and maybe attract new fans. The only problem is that everyone in the band has played those songs a certain way for so long that it can be difficult to make the adjustments.

Sometimes a band member will forget the new parts that were added. Even if they remember the new parts, their fingers might still play the old notes.

As with most examples of proactive interference, the problem is that the previously learned way of doing something is so firmly entrenched in our memory that it is not so easy to replace it with the new way.

7. Learning a New Playbook in Football

Summary: A football player who changes teams has to erase all the old plays from his old team and learn the new playbook. Sometimes, he might revert back to his old plays that are ingrained in his mind.

Every football team has volumes of playbooks and a unique set of terminology that is only used by them. Players spend hours every week studying the plays and trying to memorize the jargon. They spend even more time watching footage of the plays!

There are literally millions of dollars on the line, for both players and coaches. So, everyone is fully committed to inputting all of that information as firmly in their long-term memory as possible.

And then one day, a player gets traded. Now he must replace all of that information in memory with a completely new playbook and language. There will definitely be a lot of proactive interference.

8. Distorted Memory for a Documentary (Anchoring Heuristic)

Summary: The things we learn at the beginning of a documentary overshadow things we learn later in the documentary. Sometimes we call this the anchoring heuristic.

Documentaries can be long, and unless you are already fascinated with the subject, sometimes a little boring. However, our memory for the information that is presented in a documentary helps illustrate proactive interference.

Most people will be much better at recalling the first bits of information presented in the documentary. This can be due to several factors working together simultaneously.

For example, our minds may be more alert in the beginning of the film and so information presented then is easily stored in memory.

As time goes by, inputting more information may be more difficult.

This could be due to proactive interference and the fact that the earlier information is firmly ingrained in memory. It will take greater cognitive effort to store new information and we might already be too bored to exert the effort.  

9. Dialogue in a Stage Play

Summary: Actors who have to change their lines in a play last minute find it very difficult because of proactive inference. They need to unlearn the lines they have seared into their mind!

Rehearsing for a play on stage can go on for weeks. Each cast member will practice their lines until they are all firmly committed to memory.

Many actors believe that when they have the words so well memorized that they can say them automatically, without thinking, it frees-up their mind to focus on their emotional tone and physical movements.

This is an excellent strategy that can pay dividends in the form of a great performance.

However, there are rare occasions when opening night reveals some issues: perhaps the audience is taken aback by an off-color remark; maybe one of the sponsors objects to a particular socio-political reference.

Either way, the writers must then scramble to make the necessary changes. Although there may only be a few adjustments here and there, when it comes to performing again, someone may experience a bad case of proactive interference. Instead of saying the newly scripted dialogue, the old one still slips through anyway.

10. Piano Form

Summary: When a piano player’s teacher asks them to change the way they play, it takes time and is very difficult because they have to forge new cognitive pathways and avoid following the old pathways.

Playing the piano well can take years. The best performers will train extensively from early childhood until they are adults. During that time, they may receive training from several teachers.

Each teacher will have their own unique methods. These are techniques that have been passed down for decades or some that they invented themselves. Either way, the teacher will insist that their students follow their instructions completely.

This can become a problem when switching from one teacher to the next. After years of learning the methods taught by one, now all of a sudden, they must learn a new way of playing that may be quite different from what they have already mastered. That won’t be easy.

Proactive interference will make this quite the challenge. Old habits are hard to break.

11. New Ways of Teaching and Learning

Summary: When children are taught math in new ways to their parents, it becomes hard for their parents to help them with their homework. The parents struggle to erase their old ways of learning and see things the new way.

It seems like every generation math teachers create new ways to do math. Of course, each iteration is supposed to be an improvement; either the number of steps to perform a calculation are reduced or the new method is just easier for students to grasp. There’s always a good reason.

Unfortunately, for parents, a good reason is not enough. Most parents learned how to do math a certain way, and the new version seems way too complicated. So, when mom or dad sit down to help their youngster with their math homework, it can be quite embarrassing.

Even if they take their child’s textbook and study the new procedures for hours and hours, it just doesn’t sink in.

This form of proactive interference can make parents feel very inadequate. The parents just can’t shake the old way of doing math and replace it with the new.

12. Honeymoon Adjustments

Summary: When a new couple move in together, each member needs to learn to scrub out some bad habits that annoy their partner. But each partner feels stuck in their ways and takes time to change.

Even though two people may be madly in love, once those wedding vows are made, it’s a whole new ball game. Now the loving couple get to live with each other, full-time, day-in and day-out.

That can mean learning a lot of new ways to do things. One partner has a certain procedure for doing laundry; colors and whites separated and only one brand of fabric softener will do.

The other partner however, may not mind mixing colors and whites and picks whatever softener happens to be on sale.

The choice of which shampoo and conditioner to buy can take things to a whole other level.

This is when proactive interference can take a turn for the worse.

That honeymoon period needs to last as long as possible. So, somebody is going to have to try a little harder to wipe those previously stored habits from memory and start doing things differently.

13. Supermarket Aisles

Summary: When a supermarket changes the aisles, we find ourselves heading to where the milk used to be only, to get frustrated and remember that it’s not there anymore!

No one is sure why, but occasionally a supermarket will change the aisles. What used to be in aisle 5 is now in aisle 2, and things that were in aisle 2 are now distributed between aisles 4 and 6. It can get a bit confusing.

It can also create a serious dose of proactive interference. We have already learned and committed to memory where all of our favorite products are located. Now, for some unknown reason, the supermarket has decided to move everything around.

The next few times we go shopping it is very likely that we will head straight to those old aisles where are favorites were before. It will take some time to replace those well-ingrained locations with the new ones.

14. Cross-cultural Transitions

Summary: Sometimes we struggle to transition to a new culture and continue to do our old cultural habits. For example, Australians moving to the United States often forget to tip because it’s not customary to tip in high-wage Australia.

Moving to a new country can be challenging. Everything is different: the currency, the language, the customs. It can be a lot to get used to.

One reason transitioning from one culture to another is so difficult is because of proactive interference.

Our old habits and customs have built-up in our long-term memory for all of our lives. Every time we do something, it’s representation in our mind becomes a little stronger. Over decades that can lead to some firmly entrenched habits.

When we move to a new country however, all of the new ways we are encountering must compete for space in our memory. That old stuff doesn’t move out easily and will often interfere with the new culture-based customs and habits we are trying to learn.

15. Switching from Windows to macOS

Summary: When we switch computers or phones, we find it super hard to find anything because we’re looking for things in the old places, not the new places!

If you have ever switched from using a Windows based PC to a Mac operating system, then you will have no trouble understanding the frustrations of proactive interference. It seems that everything is different.

Even simple tasks can involve completely dissimilar steps. If you have spent years using a Windows based PC, then whenever you attempt to do something on your new laptop, the old way will be automatically activated. It’s something that you just can’t control.

The procedures you learned for years have become so ingrained in your memory that they just come out naturally. It’s frustrating and it will take time for your new memories to “override” the old ones.

Conclusion

Proactive interference can make life difficult. Most people are constantly faced with learning new ways and habits. Unfortunately, the longer we have practiced the old ways the stronger they become. It takes time to push out the old to make way for the new.

This can lead to embarrassing moments, like speaking the wrong dialogue on stage, or create an awkward situation in one’s dating life, like calling your date your old partner’s name.

Fortunately for us, the human brain is malleable, even if it does take longer than we would like.

References

Ebbinghaus, H. (1964). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (H. A. Ruger, C. E. Bussenius translators). New York: Dover.

Jonides, J., & Nee, D. E. (2006). Brain mechanisms of proactive interference in working memory. Neuroscience, 139(1), 181-193.

Keppel, G., & Underwood, B. (1962). Proactive inhibition in short-term retention of single items. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1(3), 153-161. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(62)80023-1

Peterson, L.R., & Peterson, M.J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 193-198

Roediger, H. (1985). Remembering Ebbinghaus. PsycCRITIQUES, 30(7), 519-523. Doi: https://doi.org/30. 519-523. 10.1037/023895

Sperl, L., & Cañal-Bruland, R. (2020). Reducing proactive interference in motor tasks. Journal of Motor Behavior, 52(3), 372-381.

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