Interfere with Interference

By Mecayela Monroe

It’s your senior year and you have one last final to take before you say goodbye to those high school halls and hello to a brand new school, town, and group of people. It is the toughest one yet; 100 multiple choice questions! You studied those flashcards last night and looked over them one more time at lunch. There is an overwhelming feeling of confidence. The test finally gets over and you happily acknowledge you had almost every answer memorized. Now that that’s over, it’s time to throw those flashcards away and enjoy summer.

I have bad news though. That method of memorization solely for the test won’t get you far in college. College curriculums are based on retention, not regurgitation. It is education for your career so short-term memorization isn’t going to cut it. High school provides students with a lot of skills but, generally speaking, high-level analytical thinking is not one of them. In order to succeed, college students must understand, retain, and apply information which requires more than just flashcards with definitions. My hope with this post, from one college student to another, is to provide you with the awareness necessary to recognize and overcome the interference problem that occurs when new education is presented.

 What happens with new information?

When first learning new information, it is stored in our short-term memories (STM). STM is the system involved in storing small amounts of information for a brief period of time (1). The ultimate goal is to transfer that new knowledge to long-term memory (LTM). One way of doing this is by a method called chunking. Chunking is using what is small units, like words, and combining them with larger meaningful units, like phrases and sentences (1). Referring back to some notes I’ve taken in a CognitivePsych. class, the more chunks in STM leads to more opportunities for intermingled confusion. This particular confusion is called interference and is a key contributor to lack of recall ability in STM.


What is interference?

Interference is one of the occurrences that causes forgetting of information. It is broken down into two categories: proactive interference (PI) and retroactive interference (RI). PI is when something you have already learned interferes with your ability to recall more recent events. An example I was given in my Cognitive Psych. class was it being more difficult to learn Spanish if you had previously taken a French class. RI occurs when it is difficult to recall past knowledge because of new knowledge you have learned.  An example for this that I was given in the same class is it being difficultto recall your old phone number when remembering your current phone number.

One study that helped prove the idea of interference was that of Keppel & Underwood (1962). Throughout their experimentation, Keppel & Underwood found that their participants’ memory for the first trial was high, even when being tested after an 18 second delay. The drop-off in memory came in later trials. This observation suggested that the reduction in memory was not from decay, but rather to proactive interference (1). In other words, the delay did not have as much effect on memory as did the amount of new information the participants were given. In the first trial, all they had was the memory of that one list of words. Down the line, the amount of information just kept growing which created the interference, therefore the confusion.

We are at a prime age in our lives to absorb and retain as much information as possible. The older you get, the more interference will affect your memory.  It has been suggested that the differences in memory span we see in various ages may be due to “differences in theability to overcome interference rather than to differences in capacity” (2) . Learning what it is and implementing counteraction methods early on will prevent as much affect.

What can I do to stop interference?

You cannot completely get rid of interference. It is simply part of our cognitions. There are ways to reduce the effect of interference though that have been proven through various studies. In one study (Kane and Engle, 2000), an experiment was conducted in order to determine the relationship between individual differences in working-memory (WM) capacity and susceptibility to proactive interference(3). WM is the cognitive system used for “temporary storage and manipulation of information for complex tasks such as comprehension, learning, and reasoning,” (1). In their experiment, the participants were asked to tap their fingers in a specific sequence during recall of lists of words they were given. It was either a “complex” or “cascade” tapping condition. It was explained in the discussion of the study that “the complex-tapping condition provided an attentional burden, or ‘load’” while the cascade-tapping condition “resembled the complex-tapping condition but was not as demanding,”(3) . The results from this study showed that those with high WM span had better results under the “normal” circumstances than they did under the “complex” ones.

The reasoning behind this falls in the use of controlled attention. Those with high spans use controlled attention to have higher resistance to PI under normal conditions, but dividing your attention makes that task harder to do. Consistent with these findings are those of Cindy Lustig, Lynn Hasher, and Cynthia P. May. Through experiments, they came to similar conclusions as Kane and Engle. It was suggested that the “ability to manage PI contributes significantly to span performance,” and that the “ability to resist interference is related to overall span performance,” (2) .

The point to take away from all of this is that when studying or doing homework, try to limit the amount of tasks you’re doing (i.e. texting, talking to a friend, or watching a movie). It takes focus to be able to use controlled attention, but having that ability limits the effects of proactive interference in your memory.

Another speculation is that a higher degree of learning counteracts retroactive interference (4). One way to ensure a “higher degree of learning” falls in associations with the information. If you make those connections between your personal and academic life, recall can be better. In a sense, take something you may not find intriguing and tie it to something in your life that you do. 

By associating the word “chunking” with the idea of sugar making you chunky, Lex has a connection for better retention.

Not all interference is bad though

In some cases, interference is facilitative, meaning, that in some circumstances, the interference of other information in the brain can assist in learning (5). For example, taking an Algebra 2 course can be made easier by what you remember from Algebra 1. “Previous knowledge may also assist category learning (Murphy & Allopenna, 1994)” which is the ability to categorize information in your brain and then build on those categories as more information is learned (5). An example is in order to retain that a dolphin is a mammal you must first be able to recall what a mammal is. This is where the interference positively comes into play. Interference can also assist in the “learning of causal relations (Griffiths, Sobel, Tenenbaum, & Gopnik, 2011)” (5). This type of learning is talking about cause and effect relationships. In order to understand the effect of a specific event, one must first understand the cause of it. Interference can help rather than hinder by memory of what the cause was.


Bottom Line

Being in college is hard. When researching more into this topic, a specific example of interference in my life kept coming to my mind. I have a history minor so I’m taking three history classes right now. I confuse information between them all the time. Making it even harder is the fact that I have the same professor for two of my classes. I’ve experienced the not so good effects of interference, like asking about the Treaty of Versailles from WWI in my French Revolution class because of what I was learning in my U.S. History class. I’ve also experienced the positive sides of interference by being able to connect certain subjects between classes. (Sidenote: bringing in outside information makes you look even smarter which then helps you make nice with the professors). The most important thing to remember as a college student is that you honestly can do it. Some days require more work than others, but it is never impossible.


(1) Goldstein, E.B. (2015). Short-term and working memory. In M.C. Tropp (Ed.), Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience (pp. 126). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning

(2) Hasher, L., Lustig, C., & May, C.P. (2001). Working memory span and the role of proactive interference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. vol. 130 (2), 199-297. DOI: 10.1037//0096-3445.130.2.199

(3)  Engle, R. & Kane, M.J. (2000). Working-memory capacity, proactive interference, and divided attention: limits on long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition. Vol. 26 (2), 336-358. DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.26.2.336

(4) Bäuml, K-H.T. (2014). Revisiting an old issue: retroactive interference as a function of the degree of original and interpolated learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Vol. 3 (3), 380-384. DOI: 10.3758/BF03210765.

(5)  Darby, K.P. & Sloutsky, V.M. (2015). The cost of learning: interference effects in memory development. J Exp Psychol Gen. vol. 144 (2), 410-431. DOI: 10.1037/xge0000051.


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