What are the most effective psychological techniques for unlearning information?

Let me given you a simple example for clarity's sake: In high school, you learn that electrons orbit around a nucleus, whereas in reality electrons are actually at every point of the orbit at the same time. How would you go about unlearning the initial fact learnt in high school? It seems that the earlier fact is retrieved subconsciously since it has become a habit.

In the case of this simple example, it seems to be easier to replace the earlier fact. However, this appears to be problematic when dealing with more advanced concepts such as unlearning a simplified version of how fMRI functions.

  • $\begingroup$ Completely agree, seems your intuitions is governed by the previous knowledge and that knowledge is sometimes flawed. And if you learn something which seems more natural and correct then your mind seems to forget it and falls back to the old one when needed. I will also find some example when this happens. $\endgroup$
    – CodeYogi
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ Related: psychology.stackexchange.com/q/16781/7604 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 2:51

2 Answers 2


From the book memory the following extract might be helpful:

…, the association between a stimulus and a trace will be weakened whenever that trace is retrieved inappropriately. In effect, the bond between the cue and the target gets “punished”. For example, suppose that you try to retrieve the new password to your e-mail account. According to the unlearning view, if you recall your old password and realize the mistake, the association between the cue password and the original password will get weakened, decreasing the chances that it will pop up again in the future. If the old password is punished often enough, the association might grow so weak that it will no longer activate that trace; stimulus will be decoupled from the response.

So if the old information is punished many times it will start to loose its strength, and if at the same time the new information is rewarded, the new information will replace the old.


Melton, A., & Irwin, J. (1940). The influence of degree of interpolated learning on retroactive inhibition and the overt transfer of specific responses. American Journal of Psychology , 53, 173-203.

  • $\begingroup$ and I am guessing you do the same for whole chunks too? $\endgroup$
    – tristo
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, can you possibly quote the sources mentioned in the book for direct reference? $\endgroup$
    – Vakalate
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 1:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Insightful but how would you punish for unlearning something theoretically? $\endgroup$
    – CodeYogi
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @CodeYogi for example when you fail a test, criticism from other people and maybe even self-criticism $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @DesignerAnalyst what if you are self learner? $\endgroup$
    – CodeYogi
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 5:40

Replacing memories with similar memories immediately after learning them appears to disrupt the consolidation/reconsolidation processes (and hence "erases" the memory: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3677482/

This paper supports that mechanism in the context of erasure of a fear response in the amygdala: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1223006


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