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. Habituation is something that happens regularly in your everyday life, yet you are probably largely unaware of it.

Habituation in daily life:

  • 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 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.


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, people are progressively subjected to things that they fear.

A person who is terrified of the dark, for example, 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.

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.

    Habituation in Relationships

    Habituation is a concept often applied to perceptual phenomena, but it can also have a number of different real-world applications, including on social relationships. As we grow to know people better, it is only naturally that we stop noticing every little thing and become increasingly habituated to both their good and bad qualities. You might grow accustomed to habits that you initially found irritating, or even become increasingly annoyed by things that you overlooked initially.

    In the beginning stages of any relationships, people tend to respond more readily. Every sensation is thrilling because it is new and unfamiliar. 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 you partner who feels that he or she is being overlooked.

    So what can you do to overcome habituation and bring some of the initial spark back into your relationship?

    • 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 often 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.
    • 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. 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?

      A Word From Verywell

      Habituation is a natural and normal part of our experience of the world. It allows us to function in environments where we are often inundated with sensory experiences and information. Rather than being overwhelmed by all of the things that clamor for our attention, habituation allows us to pay less attention to certain elements so that we can better focus on others. 

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