The simplest example of retroactive inference is when you forget your old phone number shortly after you have memorized your new one.
Retroactive interference is when new information being encoded into memory disrupts our ability to recall already stored information.
This can happen when there is a great deal of similarity between the two sets of information or when there is a gap in the memory because it has decayed over time.
The opposite phenomenon is proactive interference.
Retroactive Interference Examples
1. Learning a New Dance Routine
Summary: A newly learned dance routine erases the cognitive and muscle memory of a previously learned routine.
Professional dancers spend several hours a day for weeks on end learning the steps to a dance routine. The rehearsals can be grueling and most people underestimate the physical demands. It is a profession that requires a lot of precision and diligence.
The interesting thing about dance routines is that even after one routine has been performed so many times, once a new routine has been mastered, the old one can be hard to remember.
It’s as if the old moves have been completely wiped from memory. Dancers will often report that their memory for an older routine “goes blank”.
This is an example of retroactive interference. The newly learned dance routine makes it difficult to recall the routine previously learned.
2. Recalling Classmates’ Names at a Reunion
Summary: After we leave high school, we go on to college or the workplace where we learn the names of our new peers. Often, this causes us to push the names of old classmates out of our memories.
High school reunions can be a lot of fun, or not. Most classes will hold 10-year and 20-year reunions where everyone can see their old friends, and rivals.
That means a lot of time has passed since you may have seen many of those faces.
At first glance, you might have trouble remembering peoples’ names. That’s why everyone is given a name tag. Of course, people sometimes look a bit different as well.
Because so much time has passed, a lot of information has been processed and stored in your memory. Those new memories take up space, and since it has been a while that you needed those names, they may have been pushed out from long-term storage.
This is exactly what happens with retroactive interference. The new information you have accumulated for 10 years makes it difficult to retrieve your classmates’ names.
3. Calling Your Ex the Wrong Name
Summary: After you start dating someone new, the name of your Ex starts disappearing from your retrievable memory. When you run into them in the mall, it may even take a few moments to remember their name!
If you have started a relationship with someone new for a few months, you are beginning to form some strong memories.
As time goes by, those memories can get stronger and more firmly ingrained in your long-term storage.
An issue might occur however, if you happen to run-in to your previous romantic partner. If it has been a while since you last saw each other, then you might have some trouble remembering their name right off the bat.
As you approach each other and a feeling of awkwardness arises, you might get a little nervous and call them by the wrong name. You might even call them the name of your current partner. Yikes.
This is an example of new information coming to mind instead of the old information being used; classic retroactive interference.
4. False Memories
Summary: Sometimes, when we try to recall past events, our memories of similar (and more recent) events interfere, leading to a false memory effect.
A false memory is an inaccurate memory for a past event. Although most of us are very confident that are memories are accurate, research (see Loftus, 1997) has demonstrated that this is not entirely true.
In the case of retroactive interference, what can happen is that as the old memory begins to fade, it is replaced with newly processed information. If two events are similar, then this can make the previously stored memory seem very accurate. However, many details will have been replaced with details of the newly experienced event.
In the words of Elizabeth Loftus, “False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others” (1997, p. 75).
In most cases, this is not a big deal. But when it comes to matters related to criminal investigations or eyewitness testimony, the consequences can be substantial and life-changing.
5. Changing Phone Numbers
Summary: You’ll likely start to lose your memory of your old phone number because that schema in your mind is replaced with your new phone number.
Everybody will get different phone numbers over the course of their lives. This can be for a variety of reasons: moving to a new state or losing a phone.
This is usually no big deal. However, after considerable time has gone by, we might encounter a situation in which we need to remember that old phone number.
For example, if applying for a PayPal account or going through an extended security check for a bank loan, the application process can be quite extensive. You may be asked to provide your old phone number. Well, that might not be so easy to do.
If it has been a long time since you last used that phone number and you didn’t think to write it down somewhere, you simply won’t be able to recall it. That information has been replaced with your newest number; a common case of retroactive interference.
6. Bands Playing Old Songs
Summary: Bands may forget their old hits because they’ve spent all their recent months practicing their new hits. (Similarly, fans may forget the old song lyrics after new songs come out!)
Famous bands are well-known for breaking up, then getting back together, then breaking up again…then going on reunion tours 20 years later.
That means that a lot of time has passed from their early days playing together. Some members may have joined other bands and learned to play completely different songs.
That might be a bit of an issue for the reunion tour. They might experience a case of retroactive interference where all of the new songs they have been playing have replaced the songs from so many years ago.
It might take some effort to get those new memories back, but it can happen with a little rehearsal time.
7. Studying Too Early for an Exam
Summary: You forget information you studied early on in your study routine because you’ve replaced all that information with the information you crammed in the last few days.
Let’s suppose that you have a test on an upcoming Monday. Because you are motivated and want to get a good score, you start to study one week prior.
The studying goes well and you take a practice test to make sure you know the material. You score is high so you think you have probably studied enough and feel confident that you have all the information firmly stored in memory.
Over the next week you go to classes in other subjects and your mind is quite busy reading papers and taking notes.
When the test rolls around on Monday, you find it is very difficult to retrieve the information you stored in memory a week ago. You feel puzzled.
What has happened is a classic case of retroactive interference; all that information that you learned during the week has interfered with your ability to recall the information for the test.
8. Learning Two Foreign Languages
Summary: As you learn a third language, the second language you knew starts to slip from your tongue.
If you like to travel to different countries, then you understand the importance of learning how to speak the language ahead of time. There’s no need to become fluent before traveling, but certainly having basic “survival” skills will be helpful.
If you are a person that is naturally gifted with languages, then learning multiple foreign languages will be a breeze. For others however, learning even one foreign language can be a challenge.
This matter can be exacerbated by retroactive interference. After traveling to a second foreign country, and studying intently to speak that language, you may find that everything you learned in the first language somehow disappears.
This is a quite common phenomenon that happens when the second language replaces the first one you learned. Don’t worry, your brain is normal.
9. The National GeoBee
Summary: Many students experience retroactive inference when trying to fit as much information into their minds for a big event like a Spelling Bee or GeoBee.
Every year for over 30 years the National Geographic Society has sponsored a geography competition called the GeoBee.
Millions of students, parents, and educators have participated in this exhilarating event. No doubt, studying the names of every country on the planet is a big challenge.
But the contest also involves knowing basic facts about the Earth, such as the highest, lowest, and deepest points on the planet, in addition to major physical features and even the capitals of all the countries…plus a whole lot more.
That is a lot of factual information. Of course, it is not possible to study everything all at once. The data has to be input sequentially.
That means that what was learned first, probably months ago, might be difficult to remember after cramming in so much other information afterwards.
Retroactive interference can create a big obstacle in this type of competition.
10. Piano Form
Summary: When a pianist takes on a new teacher, they start learning the new teacher’s form and forget or get sloppy about the old ways they were taught.
A professional pianist will receive highly specialized training from many teachers over the course of 10-15 years.
Each one of those teachers will have their own set of special techniques that they want their students to perform. And piano teachers are well-known for their strictness and exacting standards, so any variation will be spotted immediately.
Of course, students can be a bit picky as well. They may dislike their new teacher after a while and want to go back to a teacher they had years ago. The teacher/student bond can become very strong over time.
Unfortunately, this might be a bit challenging to instantly delete all of those new techniques rigidly instilled. When going back to their previous teacher, a student might discover that they have “lost” those older techniques.
Although this might seem a little embarrassing for the student, most likely an experienced teacher has seen this phenomenon before. They know that it will take time to get those old ways back to proper form.
They might not know the formal term “retroactive interference,” but they certainly know of it.
11. Instructions for the Babysitter
Summary: A babysitter works for five different families. As she goes from house to house, the instructions from each family compete for space in her long-term memory.
When a person takes on a babysitting job, it involves a lot of responsibility. Some parents can leave a set of instructions that reads more like a manual, with a level of detail that would impress a NASA scientist.
Nothing wrong with that. The only possible problem is what can happen if a babysitter is working for multiple parents. After reading over the instructions from mom #2, it can be easy to forget what the first parent wants.
The instructions begin to compete for space in long-term memory. As the most recent instructions are processed, they begin to push-out the instructions already in storage.
Luckily, each parent has printed out several copies, sent them to the babysitter’s email, and uploaded them to the cloud as well.
12. Losing Your Native Language
Summary: A person who has lived overseas for 25 years tries to speak their native tongue fir the first time in decades. Suddenly, they realize they can barely remember it.
Our native language is the language we learned as we were growing up. Most of us spend a better part of our childhood and adult lives in the country where we were born.
However, some more adventurous folks might move to another country; maybe even spend the rest of their lives there.
Believe it or not, if they spend enough years in that foreign country, learning the language and becoming so immersed in the culture, their native language skills can start to fade away. They might even start to speak in a “broken” version of their native tongue.
This actually happens to a lot of expats that spend 10-15 years in a foreign country and spend more time speaking the local language than they do their own. It might be hard to believe that retroactive interference can be so powerful, but it certainly can be in some circumstances.
13. Remembering the Details of Meetings
Summary: We take meeting minutes because of retroactive interference. After multiple meetings, we’ll start to forget what was said in earlier meetings, and in what order.
There is a very good reason that every meeting has a designated note-taker. A lot of information can be exchanged and discussed.
Decisions can be made that often include a few specific conditions that need to be met or procedures that need to be followed. No one can remember it all.
This is why someone is supposed to take notes, then write-up a summary and distribute accordingly. Ideally, everyone will read the meeting-minutes and either suggest some alterations or give their approval.
If it wasn’t for retroactive interference, none of that would be necessary. But since most people will leave the meeting and move on to other tasks, and other meetings, it’s a good idea to keep notes.
14. Cross-cultural Transition in Reverse
Summary: Moving across countries and cultures can be difficult when you start to forget which customs are appropriate, where. If you’re gone too long, you forget the customs of your homeland.
Moving to a foreign country presents lots of challenges. There are different ways of doing almost everything. People have different table manners, class structures, even different conceptions of personal space.
After living in a vastly different country for many years the customs of that land start to be internalized. Before you know it, you’re acting just like a local. Nothing wrong with that.
The problems can occur when you go back home to visit your relatives for the holidays. All of sudden, you might forget what is proper etiquette in your own country. This can create some awkward moments at the dinner table.
For example, in several countries it is considered a compliment to the chef to expel gas noisily from the stomach through the mouth (i.e., belch). However, if you’re from North America, think twice. This is an example of how retroactive interference can cause embarrassment.
15. Switching from a Stick Shift to an Automatic
Summary: Once you move across to an automatic transmission car, you can start to forget how to drive the old manual stick shift that you learned on!
Most of us learned how to drive on car with an automatic transmission. It’s just easier. It takes a while to become a good driver, so not needing to think about how to shift makes driving safer.
After a few years you might want to switch to a stick shift. These cars feel like they have more power and some people like the feeling of control.
Retroactive interference can occur after you have spent a few years driving a stick shift and then get into your friends automatic. Your body is already used to the action of grabbing the stick and pressing the clutch simultaneously to shift gears.
In your friend’s car, you may find yourself reaching for a stick that isn’t there and trying to press down on a clutch that doesn’t exist. Hopefully, you won’t press on the brake by accident.
Retroactive interference is when what we learn recently makes recalling older information more difficult. The problem is that new information has pushed out the old and taken space in our long-term memory.
This can make life interesting if we are trying to recall the name of an ex romantic partner or playing an old song. It can also lead to more serious situations in criminal investigations. For example, our memories can be easily affected by more recent events or the way someone asks us questions about what happened.
It could also lead to embarrassing moments when we display cultural behavior that is not appropriate at our family’s dinner table.
The thing to keep in mind however, is that with time, our old ways can come back. It just takes time.
Atkinson, R. C. & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W.; Spence, J. T. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (vol. 2) New York: Academic Press, pp. 89-195
Chandler, C. C. (1989). Specific retroactive interference in modified recognition tests: Evidence for an unknown cause of interference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 256-265.
Ebbinghaus, H. (1964). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (H. A. Ruger, C. E. Bussenius translators). New York: Dover.
Fatania, J., & Mercer, T. (2017). Nonspecific retroactive interference in children and adults. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 13(4), 314-322. https://doi.org/10.5709/acp-0231-6
Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The Formation of False Memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.
Loftus, E. F. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277(3), 70-75.