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Studies on Interference

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Studies on Interference

Memory is a somewhat fickle thing. Although it can perform extraordinary feats, for instance, remembering what happened on your 11th birthday when you’re 60 years old, it can also just as easily forget what happened the day before.

Some people have photographic memories and can recall every bit of information they ever come across. The rest of us are not so fortunate, and we are subject to the tumultuous nature of forgetting or struggling to recall information. The struggle to recall information can be due to multiple reasons. However, here we are concerned specifically with a concept known as interference.

Studies on Interference Interference Psychology definition StudySmarterInterference, Flaticon

What is interference?

Interference is an explanation for long-term memory forgetting, as according to this theory, forgetting occurs because memories interfere with one another. Interference happens when a memory similar to the one someone is trying to recall ‘interferes’ and stops recalling the wanted memory.

There are two types of interference: proactive and retroactive interference. The proactive and retroactive interference examples below will help you understand what they entail.

Proactive interference in psychology is when an old memory interferes with recalling a new memory.

Suppose a woman gets married and changes her surname. She should write her new surname on official documents, but she keeps forgetting and writing her maiden name.

Retroactive interference in psychology is when a new memory interferes with recalling an old memory.

Suppose someone moves to a new address. After a while, they forget their old address (especially the postcode).

McGeoch and McDonald’s (1931) study

There are many contemporary studies on interference theory in psychology, as much research has been conducted to investigate the effect of interference on forgetting. We will look at a study by McGeoch and McDonald (1931).

McGeoch and McDonald (1931) aimed to investigate the effect of retroactive interference on forgetting in long-term memory.

Procedure

Participants had to remember a list of words until they could recall the list perfectly (100% accuracy). Then, participants had to learn a new, second list. There were six groups, so each group learned a different set of words for the second list. There was one control condition.

Studies on Interference comtemporary studies on interference theory psychology McGeoch and McDonald word list StudySmarterIn the McGeoch and McDonald study (1931), participants had to remember a list of words, Flaticon

You can see the groups listed in the table below:

Group 1Synonyms – words with the same meaning as the originals
Group 2Antonyms – words with the opposite meanings as the originals
Group 3Words unrelated to the original words
Group 4Nonsense syllables
Group 5Three-digit numbers
Group 6No new list – these participants just rested (Control Condition)

Participants then had to recall the original list of words.

Results

Group 1, who learned the list with the most similar material (synonyms), had the worst recall. Group 5, who learned the most irrelevant material (numbers), had the best recall, apart from the control group.

Conclusion

The more similar information is, the more likely it will interfere with other memories.

Evaluation

In the following, we will present an evaluation of the McGeoch and McDonald (1931) study.

Strengths

  • Research from other lab experiments supports McGeoch and McDonald’s findings: Underwood and Postman (1960) conducted a study in which participants were divided into two groups and asked to learn a list of word pairs, e.g., cattree. The first group had to learn this list, and then a second list where the first word remained the same but the second word changed, e.g., catglass. The second group only had to learn the first list of word pairs. After this, both groups had to recall the first list of word pairs. The second group’s recall was much more accurate than the first group’s, showing the interference of new information on old memories.

    Studies on Interference comtemporary studies on interference theory psychology memory recall StudySmarterMemory recall, Flaticon

  • We can see the effect of interference in the real world. Baddeley and Hitch (1977) asked rugby players to try to remember the names of the teams they had played against during the season. Some players had played in all the games, but some had missed some games due to injury. Those that had played against fewer teams recalled more. This finding suggests that as fewer team names interfere with their memory, their recall was better.

Weaknesses

  • As this was a lab experiment with an artificial task of learning lists of words, the study lacks ecological validity. It is hard to apply this type of memory formation and the resulting interference variables in everyday situations. People generally do not spend their time memorising lists of words and performing an interference task specifically intended to ‘interfere’ with the first list.

  • Tulving and Psotka (1971) found that when participants were given cues, which led to better recall of lists of words. This finding suggests that interference effects can be nullified. Only considering the interference theory of forgetting may have overlooked the effect of cue-retrieval in memory.


Studies on Interference - Key takeaways

  • Interference is an explanation for long-term memory forgetting, as according to this theory, forgetting occurs because memories interfere with one another. Interference happens when the memories are similar.
  • Proactive interference in psychology is when an old memory interferes with recalling a new memory.
  • Retroactive interference in psychology is when a new memory interferes with recalling an old memory.
  • In McGeoch & McDonald (1931), researchers aimed to investigate the effect of retroactive interference on forgetting in long-term memory.
  • Participants had to remember a list of words until they could recall the list perfectly (100% accuracy). Then, participants had to learn a new, second list. There were six groups, so each group learned a different set of words for the second list. There was one control condition. They then had to recall the original list of words.

Frequently Asked Questions about Studies on Interference

Interference is an explanation for long-term memory forgetting, as according to this theory, forgetting occurs because memories interfere with one another. Interference happens when a memory similar to the one someone is trying to recall ‘interferes’ and stops recalling the wanted memory.

A pivotal study is by McGeoch & McDonald (1931). Researchers aimed to investigate the effect of retroactive interference on forgetting in long-term memory. They found the more similar information, the more likely it will interfere with other memories. 

When two pieces of information are not similar, there is less chance for interference. The findings by McGeoch & McDonald (1931) support this idea. Also, using cues to aid memory retrieval can reduce the impact of interference causing forgetting.

The two types are proactive interference and retroactive interference.

Suppose a woman gets married and changes her surname. She should write her new surname on official documents, but she keeps forgetting and writing her maiden name.

Final Studies on Interference Quiz

Question

What is the aim of McGeoch & McDonald’s (1931) study?

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Answer

McGeoch & McDonald (1931) aimed to study retroactive interference by changing the similarity between two sets of materials.

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What is the setting of McGeoch & McDonald’s (1931) study?

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Answer

McGeoch & McDonald (1931) is experimental research carried out in a laboratory setting.

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What are the procedures of McGeoch & McDonald (1931) study?

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Answer

Participants had to remember a list of words until they can recall the list perfectly (100% accuracy). Then, participants had to learn a new list in various levels of similarity compared to the first list. They employed a total of six groups in this study.

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Question

What are the results of McGeoch & McDonald’s (1931) study?


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Answer

The results showed that, after 20 minutes, the most similar material (synonyms) produced the worst recall, and the most irrelevant material (numbers) produced the best results other than control.

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What are the implications of McGeoch & McDonald’s (1931) study?

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Answer

The findings imply that when the participants try to recall the first word list, their performance depended on the nature of the second list. McGeoch & McDonald (1931) concluded that interference is strongest when the memories are similar.

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Why is the supporting evidence of the interference theory of forgetting praised for having high internal validity?

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Answer

Consistent evidence is drawn from laboratory research to support the interference theory. These results are remarkably robust to support the interference theory as they all replicated similar results within a rigidly controlled lab setting and eliminated the effect of extraneous variables. These well-controlled and consistent laboratory findings provided great internal validity and explanatory power on how interference lead to forgetting.

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Why is supporting evidence of interference theory of forgetting criticised for having flaws in ecological validity?

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Answer

A common weakness of the interference theory is that research evidence supporting this theory has low ecological validity. Supporting research is produced in laboratories. Participants often complete artificial tasks such as learning a list of meaningless words in the lab setting that lacks mundane realism. This is a weakness because findings generated in lab experiments can only be poorly generalised to real-life forgetting as results do not reflect real-world memory formation.

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Is interference the single explanation for forgetting?

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Answer

No, interference is not the single explanation for forgetting. The absence of memory-related cues can also lead to forgetting, also called retrieval failure or cue-dependent forgetting.

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Question

Name and elaborate on a study showing the interference theory of forgetting in real-life application.

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Answer

Baddeley and Hitch (1977) showed the interference theory of forgetting in real-life applications. The researcher asked rugby players to remember the names of the teams they had played against during the season so far. Because most of the players had missed some matches, the ‘last team’ they played for could have been two or three weeks previously. The findings reveal that correct recall was unaffected by how long ago the matches occurred. The number of games they played in the meanwhile was far more essential. So a player’s recall from a team three weeks ago was better if they had not played since then. This research demonstrates that the interference explanation can be applied to at least some everyday circumstances.

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