What Is Interference Theory?

Jacob Queen

Interference theory is a scientific concept dealing with the way memories are stored in a person’s brain. According to interference theory, older and newer memories can interfere with each other. New memories can make older memories harder to recall, and old memories can make new memories somewhat hard to retain. There is a fair amount of scientific evidence supporting interference theory, but the exact mechanism behind it isn’t fully understood.


Generally speaking, memories only interfere with each other when they are focused in similar thinking areas. For example, if an individual where to spend many years learning a martial art, mastering a very specific pattern of movements and reactions, those may become very deeply set in his mind. Once those memories are in place, it can make training in a new set of similar skills more difficult. The individual’s ability to retain new information might be overwhelmed by the deeply-ingrained training he received previously. If the person keeps working at it, the interference effect can potentially be overcome, but it is not always easy to do.

Interference theory can also work in the opposite way. A new memory could potentially interfere with an attempt to remember something old. Sometimes it takes a little while for a new memory to supersede the old one, but once it happens, it can potentially make recall fairly difficult. Most experts generally agree that the old memories aren’t actually lost when they get replaced. Instead, they are thought to simply be somewhat inaccessible. An example of an old memory being replaced would be learning a new email address or password and then not being able to recall an older one.

One way scientists have studied interference theory is through experiments with memorization. Subjects in these studies are generally asked to memorize something, like a list or names of people in pictures, and once the information is fully learned, they are asked to learn even more similar information. Generally speaking, the results of these tests have conclusively shown that the person’s memory performance continually decreased with each additional bout of memorization.

There are many ways in which interference theory could potentially affect someone’s day-to-day life experience. For example, if people are ever asked to adapt to a new way of doing things in their jobs, they might find that memory interference greatly hampers their progress. Sometimes people have a great deal of difficulty unlearning old patterns of behavior.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


An example of interference theory can be seen in workers who have been trained to answer the phone by stating the name of their place of business. I have seen this happen many times, and it often causes embarrassment for the employee.

I worked with a guy who worked for years at a magazine before coming to our newspaper. One day, I actually heard him answer his desk phone by stating the name of the magazine. He didn’t catch what he did until the person on the other end questioned him. Then, he laughed at himself and apologized. Luckily, the boss did not hear him.

Another time, I was in the drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant. The voice coming out of the speaker welcomed me to a different restaurant, causing me momentary confusion. She quickly realized what she had said and corrected herself. When I drove up to pay, her face was still red.


@shell4life - I experienced the theory of interference when trying to learn new photo editing software. Like you said, it really was hard to become accustomed to the new program after so many years of using the old one.

I left my job of six years, and I had a different photo program on my home computer than the one I used at work. Though I had some experience using the one at home, I did a lot of personal photo editing in my spare time at work, so I had some learning to do.

I kept finding myself looking for menu items that were called by other names. The tools were arranged differently, and some of them were missing entirely. I eventually learned my way around the program, but I still catch myself expecting things from it that only the old one could provide.


My coworker convinced my boss a few years ago to switch design programs and upgrade to something newer. We had been using the old program for many years, and it was hard to get used to the new one.

However, eventually, the new one became second nature. I no longer found myself typing commands that only the old program would respond to, and I stopped looking for tools in the toolbar that weren’t there.

We still kept the old program on one computer to do the classified pages. When I tried to use it, I found that I had forgotten where the different tools and menus were, and I couldn’t remember all of the keyboard commands.


Though I still remember the land line phone number that I had for twenty-something years, I have forgotten my first two cell phone numbers. So, I believe in the interference theory.

I got my first cell phone in college. It was one of those bag phones that you keep in your car and plug into the charger to operate. I have no idea what my number was, and I’m pretty sure my parents have forgotten, too.

My second cell phone was handheld. It was thicker than the one I have today, and it had a rubber antenna on top. I used it for many years, but I can only remember the first three digits of my number. None of my friends can remember it, either, and they dialed it many times.

Post your comments
Forgot password?