What is the Bathtub Effect?


Woman reading book in bubble bath
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In language studies, the bathtub effect is the observation that, when trying to remember a word or name, people find it easier to recall the beginning and end of a lost item than the middle.

The term bathtub effect was coined in 1989 by Jean Aitchison, currently the Emeritus Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Explanation of the Bathtub Effect

  • "The 'bathtub effect' (my term) is perhaps the most commonly reported finding in the literature on memory for words. People remember the beginnings and ends of words better than the middles, as if the word were a person lying in a bathtub, with their head out of the water at one end and their feet out at the other. And, just as in a bathtub the head is further out of the water and more prominent than the feet, so the beginnings of words are, on average, better remembered than the ends. . . .

    "In malapropisms--cases in which a similar-sounding word has been wrongly selected, as in cylinders for 'syllables,' anecdote for 'antidote,' facilities for 'faculties'--the effect is even stronger."
    (Jean Aitchison, Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2012)
  • "[C]ertain positions in words (initial, final) are more 'salient,' as are positions such as the beginning and the end of sentences. The consequence is the so-called 'bathtub' effect (according to which speakers will recall with more ease the beginning and the end of words . . .). Rhyme is affected by these facts . . .. Alliteration in English has been claimed to be the result of identical syllable onsets in word initial position, and not of mere sound repetition anywhere in the utterance . . ..

    "The direct consequence of these facts is that sound differences located in initial or final positions should be weighted heavier than sound differences located in medial positions."
    (Salvatore Attardo, Linguistic Theories of Humor. Walter de Gruyter, 1994)

    Lexical Storage: Slips of the Tongue and the Bathtub Effect

    • "It seems probable that a whole sequence [of words] like fish and chips is stored as a single chunk.

      "Lexical items are similarly associated by form. This has obvious benefits for understanding language; but evidence from Slips of the Tongue (SOT) indicates that it also assists in language production. A word substituted in error frequently has formal resemblances to the target word (average for avarice). The SOT evidence suggests that important criteria for characterizing word forms are:
      - number of syllables: sleep - speak; obsolete - absolute
      - location of stress: unanimously - anonymously; comprehensive - contraceptive
      - initial syllable: syllables - cylinders; Protestant - prostitute
      - final syllable or rime: decimal - dismal; Alsatian - salvation
      The last two constitute what is sometimes termed the bathtub effect, with the first and last syllable of a word more robust and more likely to be retained in a Slip of the Tongue (antidote - anecdote). The analogy is to the head and knees of somebody in a small bath."
      (John Field, Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2004)