Recent work on working memory training has produced conflicting results regarding the degree and generality of transfer to other cognitive processes. However, few studies have investigated possible mechanisms underlying transfer. The current study was designed to test the role of proactive interference in working memory training and transfer. Eighty-six young adults participated in a pretest–posttest design, with ten training sessions in between. In the two working memory training conditions, subjects performed an operation span task, with one condition requiring recall of letters on every trial (operation-letters), whereas the other condition alternated between letters, digits, and words as the to-be-remembered items across trials (operation-mix). These groups were compared to an active-control group (visual-search). Working memory, verbal fluency, and reading comprehension measures were administered in pretest and posttest sessions. All groups significantly increased their performance over the ten training sessions. There was evidence of strategy-specific benefits on transfer, such that transfer to working memory measures was higher for the operation-letters group on tasks specifically involving letters, and no differential transfer to working memory tests without letters, to verbal fluency, or to reading comprehension. The results indicate that proactive interference does not appear to play a causal role in determining transfer from working memory training, and instead a strategy account based on stimulus content provides a more parsimonious explanation for the pattern of training and transfer.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Persson and Reuter-Lorenz (2008) was retracted due to undetected programming issues in the training groups (see Persson & Reuter-Lorenz, 2011). When correcting the programming problem, Persson and Reuter-Lorenz (2011) were unable to replicate the positive transfer results published in their 2008 article.
For one subject in the operation-letters group, there was a power outage halfway through the subject’s 8th training session. For a second subject in the operation-letters group, there was an internet network outage during the subject’s 3rd training session. In order to retain these subjects’ data for the training analyses, we used the highest level the subjects had obtained during the session to that point. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say these subjects completed 9.5 and 9.75 training sessions, respectively.
The operation-mix analysis does not include one subject who completed the entire first training session but the file did not save correctly, resulting in a loss of the necessary recall data from the last trial involving digits as the to-be-remembered items.
The letter 3-back result is one finding with a slight divergence between the ANOVA and ANCOVA results. While the follow-up ANCOVA comparing the operation-letters and visual-search groups for 3-back letter was marginally significant, the 2 × 2 follow-up ANOVA group x session interaction was not significant (Table 4).
Category fluency is the other outcome in which the ANOVA and ANCOVA approaches differ. Although the interaction term from the ANOVA model was not significant, the group effect in the ANCOVA model was significant (Table 3). There are two reasons we do not think real transfer occurred for category fluency, in spite of the significant ANCOVA group effect. First, the within-group paired-samples t tests was not significant for either the operation-letters group, t(29) = 0.833, p = 0.412, gav = 0.173; operation-mix group, t(26) = − 1.446, p = 0.160, gav = − 0.251; or visual-search group, t(28) = − 0.663, p = 0.513, gav = − 0.145. These non-significant changes mean neither training group produced a change that was significantly different from 0. Second, the significant effect was likely driven by the non-significant increase from pretest to posttest for the operation-letters group, and the non-significant decrease from pretest to posttest for the operation-mix and visual-search groups (Table 2), a pattern that might produce statistical significance but is inconsistent with training producing transfer (see Redick, 2015, for further discussion).
Au, J., Sheehan, E., Tsai, N., Duncan, G. J., Buschkuehl, M., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2015). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22, 366–377. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-014-0699-x.
Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 612–637. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.128.4.612.
Blalock, L. D., & McCabe, D. P. (2011). Proactive interference and practice effects in visuospatial working memory span task performance. Memory, 19, 83–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2010.537035.
Bogg, T., & Lasecki, L. (2015). Reliable gains? Evidence for substantially underpowered designs in studies of working memory training transfer to fluid intelligence. Frontiers of Psychology., 5, 1589. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01589.
Bomyea, J., Stein, M. B., & Lang, A. J. (2015). Interference control training for PTSD: A randomized controlled trial of a novel computer-based intervention. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 34, 33–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2015.05.010.
Borella, E., Carretti, B., & Pelegrina, S. (2010). The specific role of inhibition in reading comprehension in good and poor comprehenders. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(6), 541–552. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219410371676.
Bunting, M. (2006). Proactive interference and item similarity in working memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(2), 183–196. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7322.214.171.124.
Burgess, G. C., Gray, J. R., Conway, A. R. A., & Braver, T. S. (2011). Neural mechanisms of interference control underlie the relationship between fluid intelligence and working memory span. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 674–692. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024695.
Carretti, B., Borella, E., Zavagnin, M., & Beni, R. (2013). Gains in language comprehension relating to working memory training in healthy older adults. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 28(5), 539–546. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.3859.
Chein, J. M., & Morrison, A. B. (2010). Expanding the mind’s workspace: Training and transfer effects with a complex working memory span task. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(2), 193–199. https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR17.2.193.
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Cowan, N. (2016). The many faces of working memory and short-term storage. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 1158–1170. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-016-1191-6.
Cowan, N., Elliott, E. M., Saults, J. S., Morey, C. C., Mattox, S., Hismjatullina, A., & Conway, A. R. A. (2005). On the capacity of attention: Its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes. Cognitive Psychology, 51, 42–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2004.12.001.
Crannell, C. W., & Parrish, J. M. (1957). A comparison of immediate memory span for digits, letters, and words. The Journal of Psychology, 44, 319–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.1957.9713089.
Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 450–466.
Daneman, M., & Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3, 422–433. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03214546.
Dunning, D. L., & Holmes, J. (2014). Does working memory training promote the use of strategies on untrained working memory tasks? Memory & Cognition, 42, 854–862. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-014-0410-5.
Emery, L., Hale, S., & Myerson, J. (2008). Age differences in proactive interference, working memory, and abstract reasoning. Psychology and Aging, 23(3), 634–645. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012577.
Engle, R. W., Cantor, J., & Carullo, J. J. (1992). Individual differences in working memory and comprehension: A test of four hypotheses. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18, 972–992. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-73126.96.36.1992.
Ericsson, K. A., Chase, W. G., & Faloon, S. (1980). Acquisition of a memory skill. Science, 208(4448), 1181–1182. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.7375930.
Faul, F., Erdfelder, E., Lang, A.-G., & Buchner, A. (2007). G*Power 3: A flexible statistical power analysis program for the social, behavioral, and biomedical sciences. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 175–191. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03193146.
Foroughi, C. K., Monfort, S. S., Paczynski, M., McKnight, P. E., & Greenwood, P. M. (2016). Placebo effects in cognitive training. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(27), 7470–7474. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1601243113.
Foster, J. L., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Draheim, C., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2017). Do the effects of working memory training depend on baseline ability level? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43, 1677–1689.
Gathercole, S. E., Dunning, D. L., Holmes, J., & Norris, D. (2019). Working memory training involves learning new skills. Journal of Memory and Language, 105, 19–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2018.10.003.
Gray, J. R., Chabris, C. F., & Braver, T. S. (2003). Neural mechanisms of general fluid intelligence. Nature Neuroscience, 6(3), 316–322. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1014.
Gropper, R. J., Gotlieb, H., Kronitz, R., & Tannock, R. (2014). Working memory training in college students with ADHD or LD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 18(4), 331–345. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054713516490.
Gunn, R. L., Gerst, K. R., Wiemers, E. A., Redick, T. S., & Finn, P. R. (2018). Predictors of effective working memory training in those with alcohol use disorders. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 42, 2432–2441. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.13892.
Harrison, T. L., Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2013). Working memory training may increase working memory capacity but not fluid intelligence. Psychological Science, 24, 2409–2419.
Huck, S. W., & McLean, R. A. (1975). Using a repeated measures ANOVA to analyze the data from a pretest-posttest design: A potentially confusing task. Psychological Bulletin, 82, 511–518. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076767.
Hussey, E. K., Harbison, J. I., Teubner-Rhodes, S. E., Mishler, A., Velnoskey, K., & Novick, J. M. (2017). Memory and language improvements following cognitive control training. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(1), 23–58. https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000283.
Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105, 6829–6833. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0801268105.
Jolles, D. D., & Crone, E. A. (2012). Training the developing brain: A neurocognitive perspective. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 76. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00076.
Jonides, J., & Nee, D. E. (2006). Brain mechanisms of proactive interference in working memory. Neuroscience, 139(1), 181–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.06.042.
Kane, M. J., Bleckley, M. K., Conway, A. A., & Engle, R. W. (2001). A controlled-attention view of working-memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.52.
Kane, M. J., Poole, B. J., Tuholski, S. W., & Engle, R. W. (2006). Working memory capacity and the top-down control of visual search: Exploring the boundaries of ‘executive attention’. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(4), 749–777. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-73184.108.40.2069.
Klingberg, T., Forssberg, H., & Westerberg, H. (2002). Training of working memory in children with ADHD. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24, 781–791. https://doi.org/10.1076/jcen.24.6.781.8395.
Lakens, D. (2013). Calculating and reporting effect sizes to facilitate cumulative science: A practical primer for t-tests and ANOVAs. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 863. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00863.
Loosli, S. V., Falquez, R., Unterrainer, J. M., Weiller, C., Rahm, B., & Kaller, C. P. (2016). Training of resistance to proactive interference and working memory in older adults: A randomized double-blind study. International Psychogeriatrics, 28(3), 453–467. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610215001519.
Lord, F. M. (1967). A paradox in the interpretation of group comparisons. Psychological Bulletin, 68, 304–305. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0025105.
Lustig, C., May, C. P., & Hasher, L. (2001). Working memory span and the role of proactive interference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 199–207. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34220.127.116.11.
Lustig, C., Shah, P., Seidler, R., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2009). Aging, training, and the brain: A review and future directions. Neuropsychology Review, 19, 504–522. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11065-009-9119-9.
May, C. P., Hasher, L., & Kane, M. J. (1999). The role of interference in memory span. Memory & Cognition, 27, 759–767. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03198529.
Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer”: Evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 512–534. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616635612.
Miller, G. A., & Chapman, J. P. (2001). Misunderstanding analysis of covariance. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 110, 40–48. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.110.1.40.
Morrison, A. B., & Chein, J. M. (2011). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 46–60. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-010-0034-0.
Nelson-Denny. (1993). Reading Comprehension test. Rolling Meadows: The Riverside Publishing Company.
Oelhafen, S., Nikolaidis, A., Padovani, T., Blaser, D., Koenig, T., & Perrig, W. J. (2013). Increased parietal activity after training of interference control. Neuropsychologia, 51(13), 2781–2790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.08.012.
Payne, B. R., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2017). The effects of home-based cognitive training on verbal working memory and language comprehension in older adulthood. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 9, 256. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00256.
Persson, J., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2008). Gaining control: Training executive function and far transfer of the ability to resolve interference. Psychological Science, 19(9), 881–888. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02172.x.
Persson, J., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2011). Retraction of “Gaining control: Training executive function and far transfer of the ability to resolve interference”. Psychological Science, 22(4), 562. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611404902.
Redick, T. S. (2015). Working memory training and interpreting interactions in intelligence interventions. Intelligence, 50, 14–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2015.01.014.
Redick, T. S., Broadway, J. M., Meier, M. E., Kuriakose, P. S., Unsworth, N., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Measuring working memory capacity with automated complex span tasks. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 28, 164–171. https://doi.org/10.1027/1015-5759/a000123.
Redick, T. S., & Lindsey, D. R. B. (2013). Complex span and n-back measures of working memory: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 1102–1113. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-013-0453-9.
Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Fried, D. E., Hambrick, D. Z., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: A randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 359–379. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029082.
Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Wiemers, E. A., Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2015). What’s working in working memory training? An educational perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 617–633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9314-6.
Rosen, V. M., & Engle, R. W. (1997). The role of working memory capacity in retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 126(3), 211–227. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3418.104.22.168.
Schwaighofer, M., Fischer, F., & Buhner, M. (2015). Does working memory training transfer? A meta-analysis including training conditions as moderators. Educational Psychologist, 50(2), 138–166. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2015.1036274.
Shipstead, Z., & Engle, R. W. (2013). Interference within the focus of attention: Working memory tasks reflect more than temporary maintenance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 277–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028467.
Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2011). False-positive psychology: Undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant. Psychological Science, 22, 1359–1366. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611417632.
Soveri, A., Antfolk, J., Karlsson, L., Salo, B., & Laine, M. (2017). Working memory training revisited: A multi-level meta-analysis of n-back training studies. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 1077–1096. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-016-1217-0.
Sprenger, A. M., Atkins, S. M., Bolger, D. J., Harbison, J. I., Novick, J. M., Chrabaszcz, J. S., … et al. (2013). Training working memory: Limits of transfer. Intelligence, 41, 638–663. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.07.013.
Stanislaw, H., & Todorov, N. (1999). Calculation of signal detection theory measures. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 31(1), 137–149. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03207704.
Szmalec, A., Verbruggen, F., Vandierendonck, A., & Kemps, E. (2011). Control of interference during working memory updating. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 37, 137–151. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020365.
Thompson, T. W., Waskom, M. L., Garel, K.-L. A., Cardenas-Iniguez, C., Reynolds, G. O., Winter, R., … et al. (2013). Failure of working memory training to enhance cognition or intelligence. PLoS One, 8(5), e63614. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063614.
Turner, M. L., & Engle, R. W. (1989). Is working memory capacity task dependent? Journal of Memory and Language, 28(2), 127–154. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-596X(89)90040-5.
Unsworth, N., Spillers, G. J., & Brewer, G. A. (2011). Variation in verbal fluency: A latent variable analysis of clustering, switching, and overall performance. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64(3), 447–466. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2010.505292.
Wiemers, E. A., Redick, T. S., & Morrison, A. B. (2018). The influence of individual differences in cognitive ability on working memory training gains. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-018-0111-2.
Wright, D. B. (2006). Comparing groups in a before-after design: When t test and ANCOVA produce different results. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 663–675. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709905X52210.
Yoon, J.-S., Ericsson, K. A., & Donatelli, D. (2018). Effects of 30 years of disuse on exceptional memory performance. Cognitive Science, 42, 884–903. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12562.
Young, C. W., & Supa, M. (1941). Mnemic inhibition as a factor in the limitation of the memory span. The American Journal of Psychology, 54, 546–552. https://doi.org/10.2307/1417204.
The research reported here was funded by the Office of Naval Research (Award # N00014-12-1-1011) to RWE. While working on this manuscript, TSR was supported by the National Institutes of Health (Award # 2R01AA013650-11A1). The research described here was presented at the 2015 annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and the Midwestern Psychological Association. We thank Devlin Bertha, Chandani Bhatt, Haley Brower, Caleb Carriere, Taylor Daniel, Kent Etherton, Andrea Grovak, Anoop Javalagi, Yun Qi Lim, Sarika Srivastava, and Michael White for assistance with data collection and scoring. We thank Nash Unsworth and Matt Robison for helpful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.
Conflict of interest
All authors declare they have no conflict of interest.
The study described here was approved by the local university Institutional Review Board.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual subjects included in the study.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Redick, T.S., Wiemers, E.A. & Engle, R.W. The role of proactive interference in working memory training and transfer. Psychological Research (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01172-8