The Associative Theory of Interference: Studying Oblivion

This theory gives an explanation to the phenomenon of how memories vanish from memory.

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In this article we will know why we forget certain concepts or memories according to the associative theory of the interference of Jenkins and Dallenbach.

This theory arises in a moment where they begin to study the phenomena of forgetting, that is, it is a theory of forgetting and human memory.

Have you ever explained many things in a day, and at the end of it, you did not remember any of them? Or have you just mixed the stories? We will know in detail why this happens.

The Ebbinghaus oblivion curve

The first researcher who studied forgetfulness as a psychological process in memory paradigms was the German Hermann Ebbinghaus, who did his work on forgetting and learning nonsense syllables.

Ebbinghaus began by studying his own memory. He created 2,300 meaningless syllables (to avoid association between syllables), grouped them into lists and recorded how many he was able to remember.

One of his conclusions was that people forget very quickly during the first hour after learning, but that the curve of oblivion (rate of forgetfulness) is softened as time passes.
Ebbinghaus, with his studies, already anticipated the associative theory of interference to explain oblivion, in addition to two others:

  • The theory of the decay of the trace: memories eroded by the passage of time.
  • The multifaceted theory of the trace: fragmentation and loss of memory components.

Origin of the interference study

John A. Bergström, in 1892, was the one who made the first study on interference. He did an experiment where he requested that the subjects classify two decks of letters with words in two piles. He noted that when the location of the second row was changed, the classification was slower. This fact showed that the first set of classification rules interfered in the learning of the new set.

Subsequent to Bergström, in the year 1900, Georg Müller and Pilzecker, German psychologists, continued to study retroactive interference. Müller was the one who used the term inhibition as a general term to refer to retroactive and proactive inhibition.

Finally, Jenkins and Dallenbach proposed the associative theory of interference to explain oblivion; we will see it below.

Associative theory of interference: experimental study

The associative theory of interference states that forgetfulness is a matter of interference, inhibition or destruction of old material by the new (although it also happens the other way around, as we will see later).

Jenkins and Dallenbach carried out an experimental study where a group of subjects had to learn a list of CVC-type words (consonant, vowel, consonant). Subsequently, the memory was evaluated at the “X” hours of sleep or wakefulness (from 1 hour to 8 hours).
The results showed how the “awake” group (more exposed to stimuli that could cause interference) remembered significantly less than the “asleep” group. Thus, the authors attributed these differences to the interference that the stimuli could have caused in the waking condition.

Types of interference

The associative theory of interference states that the memories encoded in long-term memory are forgotten and can not be recovered in the short-term memory effectively, since the “memories” or memories interfere or interfere with each other.

Thus, it is considered that in learning processes, forgetfulness occurs due to the interference of certain memories over others. There are two types of interference:

Proactive interference

Also called proactive inhibition, it appears when the information learned (“old” information) makes it difficult to retain or learn new information.

According to Underwood (1957), in this type of interference forgetting will be a function of the number of experiments in which the subject participates; that is, the greater the number of experiments, the greater the forgetting.

This type of interference would explain, for example, why polyglots (who speak several languages), when they are learning a new language, have difficulty retaining the words of the new language. This happens frequently because words already learned from other languages ​​interfere in speech (“come out”).

Retroactive inference

It is the opposite phenomenon, when new information hinders the retention or learning of previously learned information (“old” information).

According to some authors, there will be greater retroactive interference when they resemble it between the material that interferes and the material learned is greater.

For example, think of a student who learns a list of words in English for an exam. The next day, he studies a list of words in German. It is likely that when you want to remember the list of words in English you have trouble doing it, because the last words studied (in German) make it difficult to study the first words, they interfere.

Limitations of the theory

The Associative Theory of Interference only emphasizes the effects of interference in declarative or explanatory memory, and not so much on implicit memory.
On the other hand, the theory explains why forgetting occurs, but does not describe or explain the evolution of the forgetting rate.

Extension of the theory

Other authors, Underwood and Postman (1960), suggested an extensive hypothesis of the associative theory of interference, which went beyond the laboratory. They called it an hypothesis of extra-experimental interference, and in it they proposed that forgetting could occur due to the interference of the language habits of the subject.

However, the data found showed that the rate of forgetfulness did not seem to have any relationship with the frequency of the words, or in the case of meaningless syllables, with the frequency of the pairs of constituent letters in the English language.