Interference from Other Memories

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Your ability to remember something may be impaired, or interfered with, by memories of other things. particularly things that are quite similar or conceptually related. Suppose you have been shown through several homes by a real estate agent. Thinking back you might have difficulty recalling which homes had which features, sometimes erroneously remembering a feature of one house as belonging to another, or sometimes

being unsure whether you really saw a particular feature at all, since you saw so many. The more similar the houses and the more of them you saw the more likely you would be able to experience confusions of this sort.
Phenomena very much like this have been studied experimentally. Subjects are shown several word lists and then asked to recall items from a particular list. The more lists they are shown, and the more similar the words in the lists, the more poorly the subjects perform. The simplest form of this experiment requires three group of subjects and two lists of words. Two groups of subjects learn only one list either list A or list B. The third group learns both lists. first A and then B. The two-list group is typically poorer at recalling either list than the corresponding one-list group, This indicates both that learning List A interferes with recall of B, and that learning List B interferes with recall of A. The interference of A with recall of B is termed proactive interference, since A was learned before B. The interference of B with recall of A is called retroactive Interference. Both types of interference depend on the similarity of the words on each list. For example, there will be more interference if both lists are vegetable names than if one is vegetables and the other is fruit.

These effects can be demonstrated in even simpler form. Wickens (1972) presented subjects with a series of words and then tested their recall. While the list was much longer, only recall of the first four words is of interest here. The first three words on each subject’s list were names of fruits, the fourth word varied for different groups of subjects-it was the name of either a fruit, a vegetable, a flower, or a profession. The rest pf the list was identical for all subjects.

Another of my articles shows how recall gradually falls off for the first three-words as proactive interference increases the primacy effect shown earlier. However, the amount of proactive interference indicated on the fourth item clearly depends on its similarity to the first three. It is as if there is a release from interference when there is a distinct category shift. It seems, then, that the likelihood of forgetting something because of interference from other information in memory depends on the item’s relation to that information.

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