Plateau effect

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Curve exhibiting a plateau between steeply ascending sections.

The plateau effect is a force of nature that lessens the effectiveness of once effective measures over time. The plateau effect is a state that is experienced when the human body fails to respond to exercise that has proven effective in the past, similar to the concept of diminishing returns. A person enters into a period where there is no improvement or decrease in performance.[1][2]


The plateau effect may appear in learning, when students experience a dwindling (less steady) benefit from their learning effort. Studies of elementary school students have found there is a plateau effect in reading level during the upper elementary years.[3][4] This effect is shown in the forgetting curve developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus, who established the hypothesis of the exponential nature of forgetting. Ebbinghaus hypothesized that the use the ancient mnemonic device, Method of Loci, and spaced repetition can help overcome the plateau effect.

The plateau effect is also experienced in acclimation, which is the process that allows organisms to adjust to changes in its environment. In humans, this is seen when the nose becomes acclimated to a certain smell. This immunity is the body's natural defense to distraction from stimulus. This is similar to drug tolerance, when a person's reaction to a specific drug is progressively reduced, requiring an increase in the amount of the drug they receive. Over the counter medications, in particular, have a maximum possible effect, regardless of dose.[5][6]

Health and fitness[edit]

In fitness, the plateau is commonly referenced when a person's body no longer responds to certain stimulus because it becomes accustomed to it.[7] Overcoming the plateau usually involves a change in the person's workout, including adding periods of rest, changing volume of exercises, or increasing/decreasing the weight used in strength exercises.[8]

Paradox of the pesticides[edit]

An example of the plateau effect is found in the paradox of the pesticides. In Software Testing Techniques, author Boris Bazor writes that every method used to find bugs leaves a residue of subtler bugs against which those methods become ineffectual.[9] This can lead to "superbugs", indicating that traditional methods have gradually lost their effectiveness.

The Plateau Effect book[edit]

The Plateau Effect was popularized in application to daily life by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson’s 2013 book The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success.[10][11] The book outlines common causes of plateaus, and the author's findings on how to overcome.[12][13] According to the authors, the common causes of plateaus include immunity, greedy algorithm, bad timing, flow issues, distorted data, distraction, failing slowly, and perfectionism.[14]


  1. ^ Honeybourne, John, Michael Hill & Helen Moors (2000). Physical Education and Sport for AS-level. Nelson Thornes. p. 112. ISBN 0-7487-5303-6. 
  2. ^ Nitti, Joseph T., Kimberlie Nitti (2001). The Interval Training Workout: Build Muscle and Burn Fat with Anaerobic Exercise. HunterHouse. p. 2. ISBN 0-89793-328-1. 
  3. ^ Hattie, John (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. p. 141. ISBN 0-415-47617-8. 
  4. ^ Lyster, R.: Differential effects of prompts and recasts in form-focused instruction. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition #26 (2004), pp. 399-432.
  5. ^ Hanson, Glen, Peter Venturelli & Annette Fleckenstein (2009). Drugs and Society. Jones and Bartlett. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-7637-5642-0. 
  6. ^ Doweiko, Harold E. (2011). Concepts of Chemical Dependency. Cengage learning. p. 76. ISBN 0-8400-3390-7. 
  7. ^ Fontanilla, Kamila. "Overcoming the Exercise Plateau Effect". Seattle Athletic Club. 
  8. ^ Lawrenson, Doug. "9 Steps to Eliminating a Plateau". Muscle and Strength. 
  9. ^ Bazor, Boris (2003). Software Testing Techniques. Dreamtech Press. ISBN 9788177222609. 
  10. ^ Schawbel, Dan. "Bob Sullivan: How Plateaus Prevent You From Career Success". Forbes. 
  11. ^ Coffey, Laura. "Hey, high-achieving women! Here's how perfectionism holds you back". Today. 
  12. ^ Sullivan, Bob; Thompson, Herbert H. (2013-04-30). "What is the Plateau Effect?". Huffington Post. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ "The Plateau Effect: Why People Get Stuck...and How to Break Through". SlideShare.