When and Why Does Habituation Occur?

The more we encounter something, the less likely we are to react

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 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.

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 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. 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, but others around you may notice the smell even after you've become unaware of it. This is habituation as well.

The Characteristics of Habituation

Some of the key characteristics of habituation include:

  • 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, a phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery. 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). 
  • 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.

    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 it? There are a few different theories that seek to explain why habituation occurs, including:

    • Single-factor theory of habituation suggests that the constant repetition of a stimulus changes the efficacy of that stimulus. The more we hear it, the less we notice it. It becomes uninteresting to our brains, in a way.
    • 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.
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