Proactive interference refers to a phenomenon in cognitive psychology where previously learned information interferes with the ability to acquire or recall new information. It occurs when past memories or knowledge hinder an individual’s ability to encode or retrieve new memories or knowledge.


Proactive interference primarily occurs when there is a similarity or overlap between the previous and new information. The old information acts as interference, leading to errors or difficulties in remembering the new information. This interference can disrupt an individual’s ability to concentrate, encode, consolidate, or retrieve new memories, resulting in decreased performance on tasks that require new learning or recall.


There are several factors that contribute to the occurrence of proactive interference:

  • Similarity: When the prior and current information share similar features, such as meaning, context, or sensory attributes, proactive interference is more likely to happen.
  • Time: The longer the retention interval between the learning of previous information and the acquisition or recall of new information, the greater the chance of interference.
  • Frequency: If the previously learned information is used frequently, it is more likely to interfere with the encoding or retrieval of new information.
  • Strength of prior learning: Proactive interference is more prominent when the initial learning is strong and well-established.


An example of proactive interference is when a person learns how to play the guitar using a particular technique and later tries to learn a different technique. The previous technique may interfere with the ability to master the new one as the muscle memory and neural pathways associated with the first technique hinder the learning and execution of the second technique.

Another example is when a person learns multiple languages. Over time, the previously learned languages may interfere with the acquisition and retention of new languages, causing difficulties in vocabulary recall or confusion between similar words.

Overcoming Proactive Interference:

Some strategies to combat proactive interference include:

  • Recognition: Being aware of potential interference and consciously recognizing the differences between the old and new information can help reduce the impact.
  • Spacing and repetition: Distributing learning or study sessions over time, rather than cramming information all at once, can minimize interference and improve retention.
  • Interference-free contexts: Creating environments or mental states that minimize the impact of interference by reducing distractions or focusing on the new information can aid learning and retrieval.
  • Cues and associations: Creating strong associations or linking new information with well-learned, non-interfering cues can facilitate encoding and retrieval.