Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. For example, a new sound in your environment, such as a new ringtone, may initially draw your attention or even become distracting.
Over time, as 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.
In order to understand how habituation works, it can be helpful to look at a few different examples. This phenomenon plays a role in many different areas from learning to perception.
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. Habituation is something that happens regularly in your everyday life, yet you are probably largely unaware of it.
For example, imagine that you are studying with the television playing in the background. The TV might be distracting at first, but habituation allows you to eventually tune out the noise and focus on what you are trying to learn.
Imagine that you are in your backyard when you hear a loud banging noise 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
It’s not only sound that prompts us to become habituated. Other senses can also be affected by habituation.
Another example would be spritzing on some perfume before you leave for work in the morning. After a short period, you no longer notice the scent of your perfume, but others around you may notice the smell even after you’ve become unaware of it.
There are also psychotherapy approaches that rely on habituation. In the treatment of phobias, for example, habituating people to the source of their fear is one way to help them overcome their phobia. In exposure therapy, for example, people are progressively subjected to things that they fear.
Habituation in Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy uses habituation to help people overcome their fears. For example:
- A person who is terrified of the dark might begin by simply imagining being in a dark room.
- Once they have become habituated to this experience, they will expose themselves to increasingly closer approximations to the real source of their anxiety until they finally confront the fear itself.
- Eventually, the individual can be habituated to the stimulus so that they no longer experience the fear response.
Habituation does not always occur in the same way and there are a number of factors that can influence how quickly you become habituated to a stimulus. Some of the key characteristics of habituation include:
- Change: Changing the intensity or duration of the stimulation may result in a reoccurrence of the original response. So if that banging noise grew louder over time, or stopped abruptly, you’d be more likely to notice it again.
- Duration: 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. So if that noisy neighbor’s loud banging (from the example above) were to stop and start, you’re less likely to become habituated to it.
- Frequency: The more frequently a stimulus is presented, the faster habituation will occur. If you wear that same perfume every day, you’re more likely to stop noticing it earlier each time.
- Intensity: 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 (a car alarm wouldn’t be very effective as an alert if people stopped noticing it after a few minutes, for example).
Why Habituation Occurs
Habituation is an example of non-associative learning, that is, there’s no reward or punishment associated with the stimulus. You’re not experiencing pain or pleasure as a result of that neighbor’s banging noises.
So why do we experience habituation? There are a few different theories that seek to explain why habituation occurs:
- Comparator theory of habituation suggests that our brain creates a model of the expected stimulus. With continued presentations, the stimulus is compared to the model and, if it matches, the response is inhibited.
- Dual-factor theory of habituation suggests that there are underlying neural processes that regulate responsiveness to different stimuli. So our brains decide for us that we don’t need to worry about that banging noise because we have more pressing things on which to focus our attention.
Habituation in Relationships
Habituation is a concept often applied to perceptual phenomena, but it can also have a number of different real-world applications. This can include social relationships. It can affect your relationships in a variety of ways:
- We get used to the good and the bad: As we grow to know people better, it is only natural that we stop noticing every little thing and become increasingly habituated to both their good and bad qualities.
- We overlook some things (and get irritated by others): You might grow accustomed to habits that you initially found irritating, or even become increasingly annoyed by things that you overlooked initially.
- Novelty increases attention in the beginning: In the beginning stages of any relationship, people tend to respond more readily. Every sensation is thrilling because it is new and unfamiliar.
- But the novelty eventually wears off: Unfortunately, this is not a state that can last forever. Eventually, habituation sets in, and people stop noticing every little thing.
While habituation can lead to the thrill of a new relationship wearing off over time, it is not necessarily a bad thing. The initial passion that tends to mark the outset of a relationship typically gives way to something deeper and more lasting—a deeper, more meaningful love that is marked by friendship, support, and respect in addition to passion.
Habituation in relationships can become problematic, however, when it leads to taking the other person for granted. Long-term relationships can often fall victim to this problem.
Over time, you might feel that your partner does not appreciate the things that you contribute to the relationship. Or perhaps it is your partner who feels that they are being overlooked.
How to Overcome Habituation in Relationships
So what can you do to overcome habituation and bring some of the initial spark back into your relationship?
- Focus on the positive. Take the time to think about the things you love about your partner. What are the qualities you admire most about this person? What things attracted you the most when you first met?
- Practice gratitude. As you spend more and more time around your partner, it can be all too easy to focus on the things about them that you find irritating. If you focus only on these qualities, it can be extremely difficult to remain satisfied and connected.
- Recall those feelings from the start of your relationship. Think about the things that you first noticed and loved about your partner. Consider the things you enjoy doing together as a couple. Taking the time to notice those qualities and reintroduce those activities is a good way to reconnect.
- Try something new. Routines and habits can be helpful, but they can feel stifling. Look for ways to change things up and add the zing of novelty back to your relationship. Try new activities as a couple and explore things together. It can be an interesting way of building a strong connection, as well as a means to see your partner in a new light.