Oblivion: proactive and retroactive interference

Oblivion: proactive and retroactive interference

Forgetting is part of our day to day. There are situations in which forgetting occurs due to certain learning processes. Sometimes, some people call the current couple with the name of the previous one ... Does this mean anything negative? We should not worry, it is normal, it is called proactive interference. We had a little forgetfulness about previous learning.

We can also forget a language learned after learning another, in this case we would be talking about retroactive interference. Both cases of interference are part of the forgetting process and have been extensively investigated. This article addresses forgetting from retroactive and proactive interference. Without a doubt, a very interesting topic, which still today, is still under investigation.

Forgotten: Retroactive Interference

Retroactive interference (IR), as defined by Baddeley (1999), is about "interference of subsequent learning in memory". That said, it may sound a bit complicated. So they are going to expose one of the most famous experiments carried out in the psychology of memory to explore IR.

Elisabeth Loftus carried out in 1977 an experiment on IR that is still a reference today. In this study, he made a group of people watch a footage of a traffic accident. Then they were asked several questions that included how fast the cars were going when the crash occurred. All the experimental subjects were asked the same question by changing only one word.. The question was: at what speed did the cars collide? In the other questions, the word "crash" was changed to: contact, bump, collide and crash.

This one-word change influenced the response of the subjects. The word that evoked a memory of more speed was "crash", whose speed was estimated at 65.6 km / h. "Collision" was the next with 63.2 km / h, then "bump" with 61.3 km / h, followed by "collide" with 54.7 km / h and finally "contact" with 51.1 km / h. This study showed how a single word is able to modify the memory of an event. This phenomenon is what is known as retroactive interference.

Information: is it forgotten, destroyed or overlapped?

Loftus (1980), conducted a new experiment to find out what was happening with the old information. He concluded that the memory footprint was distorted or destroyed by subsequent information. That is, the information was not hidden, but there was a modification or it was deleted. However, Bekerian and Bowers (1983), showed that under certain circumstances the original information was not destroyed.

The authors used the same material as Loftus. They presented some slides that showed an accident. Subsequently, a group of subjects were asked randomly for slide data and others chronologically. Subjects who were asked randomly showed memory distortion. On the other hand, those who were asked in order of occurrence showed no distortion. So, Bekerian and Bowers claim that the initial information is superimposed by the misleading information, but not destroyed.

Forgotten: Proactive Interference

As mentioned in the introduction, proactive interference is responsible for situations as uncomfortable as calling a partner by the name of the former. Many people wonder the reason for this fact, so now we can name it: proactive inference. It's about that Previous learning interferes with subsequent learning. A very everyday example occurs when we store an object in a specific place and one day we decide to keep it in another place.

For example, if we always put the keys in a drawer of the entrance but we decided to occupy that drawer with other objects and begin to store the keys in the second drawer, it is very possible that the first times we open the first drawer. But why does this happen? Soriano, Macizo and Bajo (2004) give a clue. According to the authors, "the phenomenon of proactive interference occurs when the recovery of an element is hindered because of the previous study of a similar element ".

Proactive interference and a well-known series

The Soriano team provides information on the reason for the proactive interference: "previous study of a similar element". In this way, this type of interference occurs when the keys or elements are more similar to each other. For example, changing the drawer keys (from top to bottom) is not the same as changing rooms. Another popular example occurs with a Spanish television series called "There is no one here alive."

This series was broadcast on a specific channel, but when it ended, a kind of continuation took place on another channel, with almost the same actors and almost the same theme, only with a different name: "The one that is coming". What happen? Many people, when they want to refer to the continuation, that is, "The one that is coming", usually says "There is no one here alive" Almost the same actors, arguments and similar plots, make the elements similar. So, it is not difficult to think about the second series but name it as the first.


  • Baddeley, A. (1999). Human Memory Theory and practice. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
  • Bekerian, D. and Bowers, A. (1983). Eyewitness testimony: were we misled? Journal of Experimental Psychology: human Learning and Memory, 9, 139-145.
  • Felipa, Mª., Massif, P. and Bajo, T. (2004). Individual differences in episodic and semantic interference tasks. Psicothema, 16, (2), 187-193.
  • Loftus, E. (1977). Shifting human color memory. Memory and cognition, 5, 696-699.
  • Loftus, E. (1980). Memory. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.