What is Habituation?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2016
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In psychology, habituation refers to learned behavior in ignoring neutral stimuli. Habituation theory holds that when an animal is repeatedly exposed to stimuli that neither hurts nor helps, it stops responding. This lack of response to something that isn't posing a problem means that the animal isn't wasting energy; it's still alert in case danger does occur.

Although it's easy to confuse this type of learning with sensory adaptation, the two aren't the same. Behavior is the key in habituation, as the animal may respond to the stimuli in other ways, but one part of the response is stopped. The animal learns to ignore something that doesn't matter. Sensitization creates an increase in response, while habituation causes a decrease. The decrease may be gradual.

For example, a chipmunk in a park may voice an alarm sound and run up a tree when human footsteps approach. After repeated times when the footsteps eventually faded away and people just kept walking by, the chipmunk may have run up the tree without making any vocal sound. Eventually, if a threat to its safety still hasn't occurred as the footsteps continued, the chipmunk may not run up the tree or make any sound. Its response to the stimuli decreases gradually. The change in behavior is a learned response to avoid wasting unneeded energy.


Habituation means that when something doesn't pose a threat to our safety, we get used to it. We learn to just put up with harmless stimuli rather than waste our energy reacting to it. For instance, if a person moves into a home near a railroad track and the vibration can be felt through the floor every time a train goes by, at first he or she may feel like something bad will happen, such as the vibration will cause people in the home to fall or an object to fall and break. After repeated exposure to the train's vibration when nothing bad ever happens, the person experiences habituation and no longer behaves in a worried manner when a train goes by the home.

Drug habituation is something different. In this case the habit to respond to stimuli that feels beneficial occurs. Eventually the effect of the drug may be neutral, but the effects without the stimuli, specifically withdrawal symptoms, are so negative, that the habit remains. Drug addiction can be both physical and psychological.


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Post 6

My cat has just developed habituation to other people. Before she was so scared when anyone came near her. Now she doesn't care at all. It's kind of cool.

Post 5

@MrsPramm-- I don't think that's habituation. I think that's something else. It's obvious that you were traumatized by your parent's yelling. Hence you continue to associate it with stressful feelings.

I think you can get over this. You can develop habituation towards it but it will take time. Being around that friend that likes to be loud may actually help you. If it's having the opposite effect, then habituation may not be possible because of your past negative association with yelling. You might just want to stay away from people who yell so that you can recover.

I'm not a doctor or therapist though. You should talk to a professional about this.

Post 4

Habituation is very interesting but I think it's also very important. We do it without even realizing. We basically learn what's a threat and what is not by observing. After it happens many times, we are convinced that it is not a threat and start ignoring it.

I actually did not know that there is a specific term for this phenomenon. I used to just think of it as getting used to something.

My apartment is close to the airport and there are always planes going over. It's actually fairly loud. My first few days were uncomfortable. But now, I don't even realize that a plane has flew over. Even my ears have gotten used to the sound. It's like it's not there anymore. I just continue doing whatever I'm doing.

Post 3

@clintflint - I don't know about that. When you think about animals, like the chipmunk in the article, they are acting on physical reactions to stimuli. It's not like the chipmunk consciously decides he's no longer going to climb a tree when he hears footsteps, the way a human could. He just gradually stops as his body learns there isn't a payoff for expending that energy.

It's a learned behavior in the sense that it changes over time in response to stimuli (or lack thereof) but it's not learned in the sense of a person being taught in the abstract not to act on their anxiety.

I think the difference between being habituated and being conditioned is more that one is expressed with voluntary behavior and the other is expressed through involuntary reactions. So an adrenaline rush from anxiety might be a conditioned reaction, but you can habituate yourself to reacting in a certain way when it happens.

Post 2

@MrsPramm - It's an interesting question though, because I assume that your knowledge that your friend isn't threatening you and your emotional response is irrational means that you already control (or attempt to control) your behavior when she triggers your anxiety.

Since habituation is about a learned behavior, it might not necessarily refer to the physical response you have to raised voices. I imagine that your physical response would influence your emotional response over time, but it's not necessarily the same thing.

Post 1

Habituation can be a good thing and I wish there was a way to turn it on consciously, when you know something isn't harmful with your mind, but your body still reacts as though it is.

I was yelled at a lot by my parents when I was a kid and I still associate yelling with stress and fear. The fear makes me want to be as passive as possible, which is often the wrong response when you're an adult and you're in a situation where someone is yelling or angry.

One of my friends is very passionate and tends to get excited and yell about even minor things, which makes me very anxious. I'm hoping that one day I'll get used to it and stop getting such a strong fear response every time she does that.

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