What Is Habituation?

Becoming habituated to the smell of perfume
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Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. For example, a novel sound in your environment, such as a new ring tone, may initially draw your attention or even become distracting. After you become accustomed to this sound, you pay less attention to the noise and your response to the sound will diminish. This diminished response is habituation.

Examples of Habituation

Habituation is one of the simplest and most common forms of learning.

It allows people to "tune out" non-essential stimuli and focus on the things that really demand attention.

Imagine that you are in your backyard when you hear a loud bang from your neighbor's yard. The unusual sound immediately draws your attention, and you wonder what is going on or what might be making the noise. Over the next few days, the banging noise continues at a regular and constant pace. Eventually, you just tune out the noise. This is an example of what is known as habituation.

Another example would be spritzing on some perfume in the morning before you leave for work in the morning. After a short period, you no longer notice the scent of your perfume. A co-worker pops by your office for a quick chat and comments that she really like your perfume. Because you have habituated to the scent, you no longer notice it. Your co-worker, who is encountering the scent for the first time, notices it right away.

The Characteristics of Habituation

Some of the key characteristics of habituation include the following:

  • If the habituation stimulus is not presented for a long enough period before a sudden reintroduction, the response will once again reappear at full-strength, a phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery.
    • The more frequently a stimulus is presented; the faster habituation will occur.
    • Very intense stimuli tend to result in slower habituation. In some cases, such as deafening noises like a car alarm or a siren, habituation will never occur.
    • Changing the intensity or duration of the stimulation may result in a reoccurrence of the original response.
    • Habituation can generalize to similar stimuli.

    Why Does Habituation Occur?

    A few different theories have been proposed to explain why habituation occurs.

    • Single-factor theory of habituation suggests that the constant repetition of a stimulus changes the efficacy of that stimulus.
    • Dual-factor theory of habituation suggests that there are underlying neural processes that regulate responsiveness to different stimuli. The habituation process is responsible for decreases in responsiveness to stimuli while the sensitization process is responsible for increases in responsiveness to stimuli.

    Observations

    "Habituation is defined as a behavioral response decrement that results from repeated stimulation and that does not involve sensory adaptation/sensory fatigue or motor fatigue.

    Traditionally, habituation has been distinguished from sensory adaptation and motor fatigue by the process of dishabituation; however this distinction can also be made by demonstrating stimulus specificity (the response still occurs to other stimuli) and/or frequency-dependent spontaneous recovery (more rapid recovery following stimulation delivered at a high frequency than to stimulation delivered at a lower frequency)."
    (Rankin et al., 2009).

    More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

    References

    Domjan, M. (2010). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

    Rankin, C. H., et al. (2009). Habituation revisited: An updated and revised description of the behavioral characteristics of habituation. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92(2), 135-138.

    Riopelle, A. J. (2001). Habituation. In W. E. Craighead & C. B. Nemeroff (Eds.), The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science, Volume 1. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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