What Is a Negative Transfer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Negative transfer is a situation where a person transfers old learning and knowledge to a new situation, and the old information interferes with new information acquisition and task performance. This can be inconvenient or dangerous, depending on the type of situation involved. A number of issues can contribute to the development of negative transfer, and there may be some steps instructors can take to prevent it.


A classic example can come up in foreign language education. A student who learns Spanish may have trouble in French and Italian, two closely related languages, through negative transfer from her Spanish classes to her other language classes. She might use the wrong vocabulary or conjugation structure, for example. This occurs because the brain identifies a false correlation and tries to use its previous successful experiences to navigate a new situation.

Many drivers who learned on a manual transmission car experience negative transfer when they drive a car with an automatic transmission. The brain recognizes the environment as a car and attempts to execute normal operations like shifting gears, only to discover that this is not possible because the vehicle doesn't operate that way. Vehicle confusion can also create issues when instruments are aligned differently and drivers do things like reading the wrong dial or activating the wrong controls. This may lead to an innocent mistake like putting on the headlights instead of the windshield wipers, or to a more serious issue that may cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle.

In negative transfer, old learning interferes with new learning and experiences. The brain has a number of set patterns it uses to acquire, store, and retrieve memories, and sometimes the triggers for memories can create confusion. In the example of a driver trying to handle a new car, the brain recognizes the environment, but doesn't understand that cars are not universal, and thus things like controls may move around from car to car. The driver can have trouble learning the format of the new controls because his brain keeps repeating old patterns from the previous car.

For operators of vehicles and heavy equipment, negative transfer can potentially be very dangerous. Some safety checklists require operators to go through a series of steps before they start work so they can get familiar with the controls. In an aircraft, for example, the preflight checklist designed to make sure all the systems are operating properly for safety can also be helpful for a pilot who needs to get oriented in a new cockpit.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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