Learn what habituation is and the conditions under which it may occur.
When you first hear a car alarm, a siren, a thunderclap, or another loud and unexpected sound, you may jump, stop what you’re doing, or become extra alert. After you look around and see that your car is fine, your house isn’t on fire, and that you’re in no danger of being struck by lighting, you may settle down and get back to what you had been doing. As the alarm continues to sound, the siren blares on, or the thunderstorm keeps raging, you no longer jump or even lift your head at each new sound.
You have just experienced habituation. Habituation is the reduction of a behavioral response to a stimulus after repeated presentations of that stimulus (Rankin et al., 2009). Habituation can occur to stimuli detected by any of your senses. You may become habituated to loud sounds, bright lights, strong odors, or physical touch. Learning to ignore and filter out stimuli that are irrelevant, unimportant, or uninformative may allow you to devote more of your attention and cognitive resources to other things, including things that may signal danger.
Although scientists and philosophers have been writing about the phenomenon of habituation for centuries (Thompson, 2009), it wasn’t formally defined until 1966 (Thompson & Spencer, 1966). Psychologists who study habituation have identified ten characteristics that define habituation (Rankin et al., 2009).
- Repeated presentations of a stimulus decrease some dimension of the response to that stimulus. The affected dimension may be the frequency, probability, duration, or magnitude of the response. The response may never fully go away but may instead approach some minimum. The first firework of the night may cause you to jump out of your seat. As the fireworks continue, your reactions may get smaller and smaller until you don’t feel at all surprised or startled by the explosions.
- Spontaneous recovery: the response to the stimulus will recover if the stimulus is absent for a period. If you only see one firework show a year you may find that your startle response is back to its high point for the first firework of the show each year.
- Potentiation of habituation: Habituation of the response to the stimulus happens faster each time. If you manage to make it to more than one firework show in a single night, you may find that you habituate faster at the second, third, fourth, and subsequent shows.
- More frequent stimulus presentation will result in faster or more pronounced habituation (and spontaneous recovery). You’ll probably habituate to the sound of the fireworks faster if they are released every second than if they are released every thirty seconds.
- Habituation will be faster and more pronounced for weaker or less intense stimuli. Strong stimuli may never produce habitation in some cases. You may habituate to the sound of faraway fireworks within a few minutes but may never get used to the sound of fireworks being set off right next to you.
- Repeated presentation of the stimuli even after you have become fully habituated to it may have some effects that you’ll only be able to detect in other situations. If the fireworks continue even after you’ve become fully habituated, you may find that you don’t have any startle response to the sound of a car backfiring in the parking lot on the way home from the show.
- Stimulus specificity: Habituation to one stimulus doesn’t mean that habituation will happen to another stimulus. Although you may have habituated to the sound of fireworks, you may not show any habituation to the sound of loudly barking dogs or crying babies.
- Dishabituation: If a second, intense, stimulus is presented, the habituated response may reappear in response to the originally habituated stimulus. If someone screams right in your ear after you’ve habituated to the fireworks, the next firework may cause you to startle again.
- Habituation of the dishabituating stimulus: repeated presentation of the new stimulus will reduce its ability to reverse habituation. If the screamer keeps on screaming right in your ear, to the point where it doesn’t surprise you anymore, your startle response to the fireworks may continue to be habituated.
- Habituation can last for a long time. Habituation of a response may be faster each successive time. If you get a job at an amusement park or other venue where you hear fireworks every night, you may find that your startle response goes away faster and faster each night.
How Habituation Can Affect Your Well-Being
If you hit the lottery jackpot tomorrow, do you think you’d be happier in five years than you are now? The answer seems obvious—of course, you would be! However, research findings don’t support this conclusion—lottery winners don’t tend to be any happier than people who haven’t won the lottery (Brickman et al., 1978). This is despite reporting that they had more financial security, more leisure time, and an easier retirement after winning the lottery.
Habituation may be at play here—lottery winners may have access to a whole new set of enjoyable experiences, leading to increased happiness and pleasure. However, as they are repeatedly exposed to these new happiness-producing stimuli, their happiness responses may become habituated and the new experiences may no longer increase happiness. People tend to adapt to good and bad events and return to the same baseline level of happiness. Happiness may adapt just like startle responses.
Habituation is an adaptive process—it allows you to filter out irrelevant or uninformative stimuli so that you can focus on information that is relevant and important. As you experience the same thing without any changes, you stop noticing it. This is very helpful when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep in a noisy city apartment or learning to ignore the garden hose that looks like a snake. However, when habituation happens to experiences that bring you joy, it may become a problem. Avoiding habituation once you have achieved a goal or have settled into a relationship may require that you intentionally take the time to introduce novelty into your life.
- Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917.
- Rankin, C. H., Abrams, T., Barry, R. J., Bhatnagar, S., Clayton, D. F., Colombo, J., … & Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation revisited: an updated and revised description of the behavioral characteristics of habituation. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 92(2), 135-138.
- Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation: a history. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 92(2), 127.
- Thompson, R. F., & Spencer, W. A. (1966). Habituation: a model phenomenon for the study of neuronal substrates of behavior. Psychological review, 73(1), 16.