Proactive Interference: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Proactive Interference
  • 0:58 Important Related Concepts
  • 3:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Sometimes it is difficult to remember a particular thing. It becomes easy to jumble up things or mistake one thing for another when they are studied together. It seems like the ideas jump in front of each other.

Proactive Interference

When psychologists studied memory, they found there were a few particular ways in which learning something interfered with remembering something else. It seems like the pieces and parts of the memories jump around and get in the way of remembering something correctly.

Proactive Interference is when you memorize a list of information (words, names, ideas, formulas, and just about anything else that can be made into a list), and when remembering a later part of the list, an earlier memorized part of the list gets in the way. Here is a more visual way to understand it:

  • Learn A, learn B
  • Remember B
  • A interferes

Or, a more concrete example:

  • Learn the cities of Australia; learn the cities of Britain
  • You try and remember the cities in Britain
  • The cities of Australia keep popping into your head instead of the cities of Britain

Important Related Concepts

You can't study proactive interference without studying a few other ideas because they are intertwined.

The serial position curve was discovered by a researcher by the name of Ebbinghaus, who found that when memorizing lists of things, people tend to remember items at the beginning pretty well, the items in the middle poorly, and the items at the end of the list the best. It looks like this:

Serial Position Curve

Why is it called the serial position curve? An item is remembered best based on its serial position (first, second, third…fifty-seventh, fifty-eighth, second to last, last) in the list. Your ability to remember the items on the list can be predicted by the curve based on where the item is placed in the list.

Psychologists have labeled the effect where you can remember listed items at the beginning and end better than the stuff in the middle. When you remember items at the beginning of a list, it is called the primacy effect. When you remember stuff at the end of the list, it is called the recency effect.

The recency effect is related to something called retroactive interference, which is when you memorize A and B and try and remember A, but B interferes.

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Additional Activities

Interference Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

You have learned about proactive and retroactive interference in this lesson. For this activity, you are a teacher who wants to teach your high school students how to overcome these very common types of interference. Develop a plan, consisting of 3–5 suggestions, teaching your students how to avoid proactive and retroactive interference. For example, you may suggest that they study dissimilar material in an evening of studying, such as English then Math. Math equations are unlikely to interfere with English homework retroactively, and vice versa. Write 3–5 suggestions.

Writing Prompt 2:

Describe a time in your life when interference has made it difficult to remember information. For example, did you learn French numbers and Spanish numbers in the same semester and find yourself mixing them up? Did you read a book on World War I and another book on World War II for history class and incorrectly attribute the details of one war to the other war? In one paragraph, describe when you have experienced proactive or retroactive interference. Next, suggest what you might have done differently to avoid that interference.

Writing Prompt 3:

Imagine that you are interviewing for a job. There are twelve people interviewing—four on Tuesday, four on Wednesday, and four on Thursday. You were asked in which slot you would like to interview. In a paragraph, write down what time your chosen slot would be, and justify your choice using the concepts of proactive interference, retroactive interference, and the serial position curve. For example, if it is a job your parents want you to get but that does not really interest you, you may choose slot number 2 on Wednesday, figuring that you would be forgotten due to both the primacy and recency effects.

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