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Habituation – What It Means and How It Operates in Our Daily Lives?

Habituation – What It Means and How It Operates in Our Daily Lives?

Updated on May 16, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Habituation - Meaning, Psychology behind it, Characteristics & Much More

Key Takeaways

  • Habituation refers to a decline or diminishing response to a repeated stimulus.
  • It is a type of non-associative learning.
  • Habituation in psychology explains why we do not respond to recurring stimuli.
  • The response to a stimulus decreases without sensory fatigue or adaptation.
  • Habituation theory was first identified by Evgeny Sokolov in 1960.

Sometimes we pay less attention to a stimulus that gets repeated a number of times. You must have observed this phenomenon many times in your daily life. 

The frequency and intensity of response decrease with repetition in stimulus exposure. This process is known as habituation.

The behavior or response fades out after repeated presentation of the stimulus. This is because there is no reinforcement available to continue the same behavior pattern. 

The organism eliminates the behavior and there is no association between the stimulus and response. Thus, habituation is a type of non-associative learning.

Read on to know more about this learning process.

Habituation – definition, and meaning

Habituation refers to a diminishing response to a repetitive stimulus. It means a form of adaptation where the prolonged exposure to a stimulus no longer elicits a response in the organism.

The term habituation means any action or behavior that becomes a form of adaptation. 

When repeated or continuous exposure to a stimulus does not elicit a response from an organism (humans and animals), it is known as habituation.

The organism gets accustomed to the stimulus and the innate stimulus-response association breaks off easily. Thus, habituation is also known as non-associative learning.

Since you are used to the stimulus, you’ll not respond to it in similar ways. The habituation stimulus will weaken and the response will subside over time.

For example, if you hear a loud noise every day in the neighborhood, you will stop attending or even notice the stimulus. This is because the repeated exposure has led to adaptation. 

You have already tolerated the stimulus in such a way that there is no new arousal or startle response. 

Habituation is a form of learning. You are used to something happening around you every day. Thus, there is nothing new that can interest you to attend to the stimulus in novel ways.

In psychology, habituations include a considerable decrease in response in usual ways to the stimulus that occurs again and again. 

When you get exposed to a stimulus for the first time, you’ll notice and attend to it closely.

Maybe your response will be intense and the stimulus will draw your focus and attention for some time.

However, if you get exposed to the same stimulus every day, your responses will wane out.

You’ll be habituated to the stimulus and shall not respond at all or show diminished responses.

This occurs because there is no reinforcement or reward that is motivating you to react or respond in the usual ways like earlier.

So, the responses will go on decreasing with each subsequent exposure.

The psychology of habituation

Being accustomed to the same situation reduces response because the stimulus loses its strength and its efficacy. Its ability to provoke a new response from the organism lowers to a great extent.

As we become used to the repeated exposure, we develop a kind of routine and know that it’s going to happen again.

There is nothing new in the stimulus any longer and as such the response decreases slowly and steadily over time.

In one way, we can say that habituation is a kind of adaptation that human beings and all organisms develop due to the repetition and replication of the stimulus. 

We adjust to situations and changed circumstances and it doesn’t impact us in the way it used to do in earlier times. Thus, habituation also becomes a kind of tolerance and adaptation.

Another notable thing about habituation is the decrease in behavioral response is not due to motor fatigue or sensory fatigue.

So, we can conclude that you will ignore the stimulus after repeated exposures.

For example: when you get onto a crowded bus, your initial response will be irritation and annoyance.

But after some time, you will become used to the situation. You are habituated to staying in a psychological state of ‘sameness.’

So, we see that habituation is an adaptation to the stimulus with no fuss and novel responses. 

You are already familiarized with the environment and have learned to stay in it and as such will not show the same response ever again. 

The response goes on diminishing with successive stimulation. 

The neural adaptation allows you to ignore the stimulus because you’re exposed to it too many times that was not needed at all for mastering the response.

Habituation is present all across us. It is found in all organisms and can be considered as a process that also to a certain extent helps in developing routine habits.

Characteristics of habituation

The notable characteristics of habituation learning are as follows:

  • When a stimulus is presented many times, it leads to a decrease or diminishing response.
  • The habitual response returns back after a period of time if the stimulus changes or returns back after a time-lapse.
  • The repeated habituation that is followed by a recovery tends to faster successive habituation. This is known as potentiation.
  • If the stimulus is presented with a higher frequency, faster will be the habituation and spontaneous recovery.
  • The low-frequency stimulus will lead to a less pronounced form of habituation.
  • The weak stimulus will lead to a faster rate of habituation.
  • If the stimulus is strong, a slow rate of habituation will take place.
  • Habituation is a form of neural learning.
  • Some habituation processes stay for a longer duration, maybe weeks and months. This is known as long-term habituation. But some are short-lived and go on for minutes or hours. Then, it is known as short-term habituation. 
  • It causes a form of psychological dependency.
  • Habituation occurs in animals and humans.
  • Sometimes habituation and dishabituation (the recovered response that reappears again after a lapse of time) can occur together if the strength or quality of the original stimulus changes.
  • If you become habituated to a particular stimulus, it will lead to a diminished response to a similar kind of stimulus. 

For example – your habituation to the sound of a loudspeaker in the neighborhood will also lead to habituation or some other similar sounds going on in the neighborhood.

Factors influencing habituation

Habituation has many features that need to be understood in detail.

It is noteworthy that this process has several factors that influence whether the organism shall or shall not develop a habitual response.

1. Change in the nature of the stimulus

If there is a change in the nature or type of stimulus, you will not have habituation easily.

Any change will attract your attention and you will not be accustomed to it. Thus, habituation will become harder and less frequent.

Even small changes in the duration of stimulus will not lead to habituation. The original response will go on for a long time. 

Suppose, a banging sound starts, gets intense, then again slows down and intensifies again will catch your attention every time it is going through these subtle changes.

It means variation in the quality, intensity, and duration of stimulus will make habituation harder. Only if the stimulus is presented at a constant pace, habituation is possible.

2. Duration of the stimulus 

This characteristic of habituation tells us the significance of how long the stimulus is presented. This means that the amount of time of exposure impacts habituation.

If the exposure time is longer, then habituation occurs early. 

If you go on hearing the big bang for 10 minutes, then it stops and again starts exactly the same way, you’re more likely to get habituated and not pay any attention to the successive exposures.

However, if the stimulus is presented only for a short time, you will not have a habituation response.

If the loud sound stops and again starts, you will notice it with the same level of interest and intensity, just to know what is going on.

This refers to the fact that the original response will reoccur. We call this phenomenon spontaneous recovery.

Research findings support the idea that when time-lapse is longer and the exposure duration of the stimulus is short, habituation does not occur.

3. Intensity of the stimulus

If you are exposed to very intense and persistent loud sounds, you will find that your response never wanes.

It means habituation failed to occur. Habituation will slow down.

Some sounds like a car alarm, siren, fire alarm, or the sudden loud sound of unknown nature will always elicit a very strong response.

You will stay alert if the sound is happening again.

Our brain gets habituated to simple and less harsh stimuli. But intense stimuli will always attract attention and alert, no matter how many times you are exposed to them.

4. Frequency of the stimulus

If the stimulus is presented very often, it will lead to faster habituation.

If you eat the same cereal for breakfast every day, you may not notice subtle changes in its flavor unless been pointed out by someone else.

This is because repeated exposure makes it difficult for you to notice the minute changes if you are not consciously attending to them.

Another example can be, if you visit a park for the first time, you will notice each detail closely, such as the plant pots, the fences, the décor in which the trees and plants are arranged, and the smell of the flowers, etc.

But if you go there every day for walks, then you will ignore many details. You will no longer notice the things as earlier.

You are habituated to the routine and will ignore the things because of multiple exposures to the same things.

Thus, the more the exposure, the quicker the will be habituation.

How does habituation occur?

Habituation is a biological basis on which learning depends. It describes the efficacy of a stimulus in eliciting a consistent response. 

In this learning, whenever you face a stimulus repeatedly that doesn’t change or occurs without reinforcement, you stop responding to it.

For example – suppose a pet cat gets startled by the sound of a mixer-juicer operating in the house it lives.

Initially, the sound could elicit a response and made the animal hunt for a place to hide. 

But, when the cat hears this noise every day with no negative consequences, it realized that the sound is not harmful. 

So, the animal stops responding to the loud sound. The cat stopped focusing on the sound and the stimulus waned out gradually.

Habituation helps you to understand sudden changes in the environment. It helps to identify meaningful information from the less meaningful ones.

Determinant factors of habituation

There are two factors that determine habituation. They are –

  • The time-lapse between the first presentation of the stimulus and the second one. This is referred to as the inter-stimulus gap.
  • The length of time or duration for which the stimulus was present. That means, stimulus duration.

It has been found that if the time lapse between the first and second stimulus is less, then habituation sets in early. 

This is because the organism puts a stop to attending to the stimulus any further. It has adapted itself to the situation.

Suppose, if the time lapse between stimulus A and stimulus B is only 2 seconds, then habituation will occur earlier than another set of exposure where the inter-stimulus gap was 10 seconds.

Thus, it can be concluded that less inter-stimulus gap leads to early habituation response.

Now if we talk about the stimulus duration, we will find something interesting.

Suppose, there are two stimuli: 1 and 2. You are exposed to stimulus 1 for 10 seconds and stimulus 2 for 20 seconds. 

If the concept of habituation holds true, you will find that the longer you are exposed to the stimulus, the habituation will be faster and easier.

It means the stimulus of 20 seconds led to faster habituation.

It is because you got used to stimulus 2 more than stimulus 1 which was presented for less amount of time.

Thus, the conclusion is, that the longer the duration of the stimulus, the faster is the habituation.

The theories of the habituation process

Once you get habituated to something, it means that learning has taken place without rewards and punishment.  

You are not experiencing any issues out of the banging sound in the neighborhood, but the latent learning of habituation is already taken place.

There are a few theories that tell us why habituation occurs and how it impacts our daily life. 

1. Comparator theory of habituation

This theory is also known as the stimulus model comparator theory.

It is the brainchild of Russian scientist Evgeny Sokolov who considered the orienting response, the cornerstone of habituation. 

It refers to a person’s instant reflex to changing stimuli in the environment. You will be quick to notice changes that happen instantly. 

Otherwise, you will follow a habitual response if there is no change in the nature and intensity of the stimulus.

This theory of habituation explains that our brain creates a model of the stimulus. With each successive presentation, the stimulus is compared with this model. 

If it matches with the model stimulus, the person or organism inhibits a new response and becomes habituated.

Initially, the stimulus model may not be very strong to inhibit further responses. So, if you are hearing a loud sound repeatedly, you will attend to it initially.

But once the stimulus model becomes strong and you know that it’s the old sound only, with no major variations, you will become habituated to the sound.

With additional exposures, there will be no response from your end.

Further, if the stimulus changes in some way, such as a change in intensity, duration, or frequency, and there occurs a mismatch with the model stimulus, the habituation chain will break off. 

You will again start the orienting response just like the first exposure.

2. Dual-process theory 

This theory was proposed by Groves and Thompson.

The theory claims that habituation occurs due to the underlying neural mechanisms that regulate responsiveness to stimuli that we come across every now and then.

Our brain helps us to attend to a stimulus that is important and needs to be noticed or looked into. It tells us to ignore the sound and hunt for new stimuli that might be novel and unique.

There are many other pressing things that demand our attention. Thus, we need to ignore the ones that go on repeating multiple times without any purpose to serve.

The dual-process theory posits that habituation and sensitization work together in the brain.

Habituation leads to inhibition of responses when the stimulus is presented many times.

Sensitization takes place when the response to a particular stimulus increases the chances of responding to a second stimulus of similar nature. 

In this dual theory, Groves and Thomson believed that habituation is decrement by nature.

However, the process of sensitization increases the chance of responding. It is incremental by nature. 

Two neural pathways operate and decide the course of action to be taken by the person in the habituation process.

Examples of habituation

Habituation works in almost all walks of life. Some of the examples highlighted here will help you understand that the process is quite common.

  • A small child will stop noticing the sound of a toy after repeated exposures.
  • You will not notice the sound of a train passing by at a distance from your house. You have grown up hearing this sound. Thus, it no longer attracts your attention.
  • Your mom’s phone ringtone will initially catch your attention but after hearing it for a few days, you will stop noticing it.
  • If you have recently shifted to a locality near an airport, you may feel distracted and disturbed by the noise of the airplanes landing and taking off. But, after some time, with repeated exposure, you will learn to ignore the sound.
  • The smell of new spring blooms will be noticed by you if you are walking in a park just at the onset of the season. But later on, with multiple exposures to the same smell, you will not notice or even ignore the smell.

Some more examples

  • A student completes his classwork without fail so that his teacher can review his work. But if the teacher doesn’t collect the work for a few instances, he loses interest and may stop finishing the work on time.
  • An infant may cry at the sound of a barking dog in a neighbor’s house. But, after repeated exposure to the sound, the baby stops responding. He is accustomed and habituated to the sound of the barking dog.
  • You do not like the messy rooms of your kids. But after seeing the mess around every day, you are used to it and no longer feel the need to notice them.
  • A caged Macaw may be frightened by new visitors coming into the bird sanctuary. It feels unsafe at the sight of unknown humans. But, when it finds that humans are good and can be trusted, the threat decreases and interaction increases. The bird is accustomed to the threat and has learned to live normally. The repetitive good conduct of the humans helped to overcome the sense of fear.

Habituation psychology in relationships

We tend to associate habituation only with perceptual processes. But, the concept also applies to relationships that we come across in our daily lives.

Habituation in relationships can have toxic effects. It often leads to situations where partners take each other for granted. 

Sometimes, this unhealthy pattern of behavior leads to crossing limits and boundaries in relationships from all ends.

Habituation can impact relationships in many ways. Some of the most common ones are as follows:

1. Getting used to the good and bad qualities of people

If you are living with someone for a long time, you may notice that you have actually accepted both their good and bad personality traits. 

For example, your spouse speaks too loudly which annoyed you when you people just got married.

But, now since you are living together for 10 years, you have habituated yourself with a wide voice and sharp tone.

It is natural that you no longer notice or even feel anything about the loud voice. You have accepted this as a reality forever.

2. Habituation leads to overlooking certain things

At times, you may get angry and annoyed by some unhealthy habits of your partner. Initially, you may have squabbled a lot over the issue. 

But over time, you started ignoring the problem. When repeated sayings did not have any impact on your partner, you have habituated and started ignoring the issue.

For example, your partner never gave up his bad habit of smoking after repeated warnings. You started overlooking the problem altogether.

3. New things tend to attract your attention in the beginning

In the early days of any relationship, you will be attracted to your partner. 

Everything will be sunshine and rainbows and life will appear exciting and worth living. But, when this initial arousal wanes off, your responses become habituated.

You will no longer notice the subtle things in the relationship if it is occurring every day.

Slowly habituation sets in and life appears a ‘get used to’ thing that doesn’t require any further attention.

When is habituation a problematic affair in a relationship?

Habituation is good only to a certain extent but not always. It may turn toxic and hint towards deeper problems of partners taking each other for granted.

If you and your partner fail to keep healthy boundaries in the relationship, and the bonding appears too intimidating, then habituation is really bad.

Long-term relationships where partners forget to give each other space and respect are ought to move towards bigger issues in relationships.

If you feel that your partner is avoiding and overlooking your needs, or is less appreciative of your contributions to the relationship, then habituation needs to be unlearned as soon as possible.

How to break free from habituation in a relationship?

You must be wondering how to get back the old charm of love and togetherness in the relationship. Breaking free from the habituation response may not occur overnight.

But, if you try it out consciously, you can decrease the impact to a considerable extent.

1. Attend to the positive things

Every relationship can be fine-tuned with effort. Thus, you should take some time out and attend to the positive things that have happened in the relationship. 

Focusing on the good side of the partner is important. It makes the other person respect you and makes them feel accepted in the relationship.

2. Gratitude 

Practice gratefulness and appreciate your partner’s role in the relationship. 

Sometimes, it may happen that when you are living with the same person for a long time, you will be inclined to notice the flaws and personality drawbacks of the person.

You will feel irritated with the daily hustles going on in the relationship. Let the person know the habits that irritate you.

Sometimes open communication can help get back the spark in the relationship.

Let your partner know that you are grateful for what they have offered you in the relationship.

This makes them feel connected in the relationship. Maybe they will change their habits that annoy you.

3. Bring novelty to the relationship

If you want to break free of the habituation, look for new ways that can help the relationship get back its lost charm. 

You can plan a family outing, or do certain things together that you used to do at the beginning of the relationship. 

This will help you to stay connected and overcome the habituation and monotony that had set into the relationship.

4. Invest in your relationship every day

Habituation in a relationship occurs because you are no longer connecting with your partner at a deeper level. Things that once felt good became irritating and annoying over the years. 

To overcome habituation, think about the ways to reconnect again with your partner.

Try doing small little things every day to make the relationship look nicer and more worthy.

Always appreciate your partner’s subtle role in the relationship and avoid seeing the negatives only. This can make the relationship free-flowing and break habituation.

Habituation and its role in psychotherapy

You must be wondering how can habituation relate to psychotherapy. Right?

Exposure therapy, a form of CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is one of the methods used in clinical practice to treat anxiety disorders, phobias, and a host of other psychiatric illnesses.

This technique uses habituation to help patients unlearn maladaptive behaviors. It is used to overcome fears and trauma. It operates in a way that makes the person get used to their source of fear.

An example will make the phenomenon clearer:

  • A person who is suffering from cynophobia (dog phobia) can be exposed to dogs in a friendly way. The daily exposure will eliminate the fear. The person adapts the fear response and the stimulus (dog present near them) no longer elicits the fear response.
  • When habituation sets in, the person will be guided to go near to the dog, touch the, or cuddle them in close quarters.
  • The person is habituated to adjusting and adapting to the fearful animal. Later on, the person can overcome their fear completely. 

Difference between Habituation and Sensitization

Both these processes refer to the individual’s past response to environmental stimuli.

They are the two forms of non-associative learning that we come across on a regular basis, without even knowing it consciously.

They are different in two ways.

Habituation is a process where your innate response to a stimulus decreases with repeated exposures. Sensitization is a process where your responses increase after repeated exposures. You will respond with equal intensity to all the similar types of stimulus.
It will lead to a get used to the stimulus situation.It will make the organism oversensitive.
Habituation is a specific response to a particular stimulus.Sensitization is a response that occurs in a variety of similar types of stimuli. Thus, it is more general than a habitual response.
The length of effect is longer.Here, the length of effect is short-lived.
Habituation Vs. Sensitization

Difference between habituation and sensory adaptation

Sensory adaptation is not the same as habituation, though both these processes lead to diminishing responses from the organism due to repeated exposures to unchanging stimuli.

The key differences are as follows:

Sensory adaptationHabituation 
The sensory receptors become less responsive when exposed to the unchanging stimulus. Eyes can get adjusted in a dark room after some time.The brain tends to attend less to those stimuli that get repeated very often. The loud sound of the loudspeaker will not elicit a response if it happens regularly.
It is an unconscious control. The sensory messages reach the nervous system automatically and the sense receptors become less responsive.It is conscious control. You choose to ignore the sound of a loudspeaker.
Sensory adaptation remains more or less stable in changing situations of similar nature.  Example: Feeling cold while swimming in a cold swimming pool or cold lake water will elicit the same sensory response.Habituation depends on the intensity, duration, and frequency of the stimulus. For example, if a stimulus occurs for a longer duration, habituation will be faster.
Sensory adaptation vs. Habituation

The video link shared below describes habituation in a detailed manner. Do check out to learn more about the concept.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

Habituation is common and a part and parcel of our daily lives. Even if we want to ignore this learning process, we won’t be able to do it.

This is because of the ‘get used to’ notion associated with habituation.

Sometimes, habituation is good because it allows you selective attention and live in peace in over-stimulated surroundings.

It also reduces the impact of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or situations in your daily life.

Habituation leads to healthy coping at times, especially if you are trying to avoid fears and phobias.

Certain psychotherapy techniques such as exposure therapy and CBT rely on habituation for their overall efficacy and productivity.

Thus, we can say that habituation is not bad. It serves a good purpose if used cautiously.

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