Dishabituation is the heightening or reemergence of a response to a previously habituated stimulus.
For example, imagine you habituate to the sound of a ticking clock and no longer notice it. If a sudden loud noise interrupts their habituation, such as a car honking outside, then suddenly you may become more sensitized to the ticking sound once again.
For me personally, I suffer from tinnitus – a persistent buzzing in the ear. I habituate to it regularly (meaning I’m no longer conscious of it), but I suddenly become dishabituated if I enter then leave a loud establishment or even if someone mentions that I have tinnitus.
Dishabituation Definition and Origins
A few scholarly definitions of dishabituation are provided below:
- “An increase in responding to a habituated stimulus after an interpolated deviant” (Steiner & Barry, 2014)
- “…the recovery of responding to a stimulus following the presentation of an extraneous stimulus. A typical dishabituation procedure includes repeatedly presenting a stimulus until responding habituates, followed by presenting an extraneous stimulus, and then returning to the original stimulus. If the response recovers to or above the previous, habituated level when the original stimulus is returned, dishabituation has occurred.” (Vitale et al., 2020)
A great deal of research has investigated dishabituation processes and conditions in animals, particularly lower vertebrates.
Samuel Jackson Holmes (1912) is often cited as the first to identify dishabituation in his studies on sea urchins. This research is heavily focused on identifying underlying biological mechanisms of dishabituation (Steiner & Barry, 2014).
Other research has been concerned with the study of dishabituation as it relates to infant development and predicting later IQ (Kavsek, 2004).
Dishabituation Examples (Psychology)
- Changes in environmental sounds: Stan had just gotten used to his noisy L. A. neighborhood when he visited his friend in N.Y. When returning to L. A., he found that it was impossible to sleep again.
- Noticing an old acquaintance after they took time off: Kimberly became so used to Bob the UPS guy walking by her desk, she hardly noticed anymore. A new guy took over while Bob went on vacation. But when Bob returned and walked by her desk, it took her by complete surprise.
- Speed limit signs: Drivers see so many speed limit signs on the side of the road that they stop paying attention to them. But when a police car is parked on the side of the road checking speed limits, suddenly the drivers are dishabituated and start being aware of the speed signs everywhere.
- A teacher’s monotonous drone: Students in a seminar tune out because their teacher has such a monotonous drone. But after they take a 10 minute break mid-seminar, they return fresh, and are dishabutatuted, so they start paying more attention to the teacher for a while.
- Scary noises when camping: Ben went camping on his own for a week. The first few nights, he was a bit scared of all the noises in the forest. By Night 3, he was habituated and had a great night sleep. But on Night 4, a loud crunch in the distance spiked his awareness again, and all night the slightest sound scared him.
- Babies reacting to keys: A newborn baby is no longer interested in the sound of her mom’s jingling keys. But, after her mom opened a kitchen drawer to grab some silverware, the baby became seem to take interest in her keys again.
- Barking dogs: The Jacksons’ dog had finally gotten used to the mailman and no longer barked ferociously when he entered the yard. But then, a new mailman took over the route for two weeks. When the original mailman returned, the dog nearly busted through the window.
- Dishabituation and pain: Emily’s pierced ears no longer hurt. But after the doctor treated her ear infection with an antibiotic injection, when she put her old earrings on again it felt like they had just been pierced again.
- Dishabituating to a taste: After living in the U. S. for many months, Mr. Park no longer considered tabasco sauce too spicy. However, when returning from S. Korea and enjoying his mother’s kimchi, the tabasco sauce seemed overwhelming.
- Dishabituation to smells: At first, Janice had tried to get her husband to buy new gym shoes because they smelled so awful, but eventually, she didn’t notice so much. Then one day she was washing his gym clothes and got a big whiff of 2-hours of training. After that, those shoes started to smell again, this time even worse.
- Noticing bad breath: John was a big fan of garlic and didn’t believe it caused bad breath. He certainly couldn’t detect any mal odor emanating from his breath. Then one day a friend gave him a mint. That evening, after dining on garlic soup, he suddenly realized what people were talking about.
- Suddenly re-gaining awareness of social issues: After watching the news daily for several years, Miguel had become numb to the state of society. But after returning home from a trip to his home country where crime is a big problem, he was shocked at how similar the two cultures were.
- Your partner’s annoying habits: When Joan and Sam first got together, Joan couldn’t stand Sam’s constant snoring. After a while, she got used to it. But when the relationship entered a rough patch, suddenly she became aware of the snoring again and it was just one more reason she felt like she had to break up with him.
- Tinnitus: For me personally, I suffer from tinnitus – a persistent buzzing in the ear. I habituate to it regularly (meaning I’m no longer conscious of it), but I suddenly become dishabituated if I enter or leave a loud establishment or even if someone mentions that I have tinnitus.
- Startle response: A new noise might startle us the first five or six times we hear it, but over time, we begin to habituate to it. We expect it will come. But if a new noise is introduced, then the original one returns, we suddenly are startled again (see Skinner’s study below).
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Dishabituation of the Startle Response (B.F Skinner)
The famous Skinner box has been used extensively to study principles of associative learning. It is so useful because it allows the researcher to manipulate the parameters of an experiment in a well-controlled environment.
In this video, we can see dishabituation demonstrated in the rat’s startle response.
The first 10 seconds show that the rat’s startle response has habituated to the very loud noise. The video displays a yellow X with each occurrence of this noise.
After a short time, a second loud noise is presented (a red circle is displayed in the video at that moment). This second noise creates a startle response.
Then, the original loud noise is presented again (along with the yellow X). Now, the startle response has reappeared, thus demonstrating dishabituation.
2. Early Research On Infants (Humphrey, 1933)
Dr. George William Humphrey was a British psychologist and founder of the Canadian Psychological Association. In his book on the nature learning, Humphrey (1933) describes a study he conducted on dishabituation involving an infant.
First, he clapped behind the infant every two seconds. The child initially blinked each time, but after the sixth or seventh clap, habituated and no longer blinked.
Once habituation had been established, “The cradle is then given a sharp blow, and the hands are once more clapped, keeping the proper interval by counting. The child will be observed to blink again” (p. 142).
This is a clear demonstration of dishabituation. The infant had reached a state of equilibrium in response to the first set of claps. But that state was disrupted by the blow to the cradle:
“The explanation seems to be that the blow on the cradle requires a new adjustment on the part of the organism which is inconsistent with that involved in effecting the habituation” (p. 142).
3. Dishabituation Of Warning Signs (Kim & Wogalter, 2009)
Humans become habituated to warning signs regarding danger, often decreasing the sign’s ability to affect behavior. But when the signs are redesigned, we might start being more conscious of those signs again.
If people become habituated to a warning sign, then dishabituation may be a means to reestablish the intended warning effect.
Kim and Wogalter (2009) created two warning signs according to requirements set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Research participants were then presented with the different signs in different orders via a computer screen. Participants rated how “alerted” they felt in response to each sign.
As the researchers state:
“…there was a significant decrease in perceived alertness to the repeated stimuli exposure … producing a habituation effect … A dishabituation effect was also evident … due to higher ratings after the format was changed” (pp. 1615-1616).
4. Predicting IQ From Infant Dishabituation (Kavsek, 2004)
Researchers have attempted to predict IQ in adults by measuring aspects of infant behavior (Slater, 1997; Kavsek, 2004). If early signs of slowed development can be identified, practitioners could apply effective interventions.
“…about 50 years of research had shown fairly clearly that prediction coefficients from measures of infant behaviour to later measures of intelligence in childhood…had no predictive validity” (Slater, 1997, p. 474).
Other research involved assessing infant visual processing and attentiveness because habituation of visual stimuli are indicators of memory formation:
“Infants who habituate in shorter times have been found to process information more rapidly and more efficiently than ‘long lookers’” (Slater, 1997; p. 474).
In a meta-analysis of research, Kavsek (2004) states that the “… average correlation between infant habituation/dishabituation and childhood cognitive performance is 0.37” (p. 369).
While a correlation of .37 is moderately low, it may become more promising when combined with other measures.
There are numerous factors related to IQ, so it is reasonable to expect numerous measurements are needed to establish more robust predictive validity.
5. Mind Wandering as Dishabituation (Mooneyham & Schooler, 2016)
Daydreaming, or mind wandering, is often considered a sign of cognitive weakness. People that daydream do so because they can’t keep their mind focused on the task at hand.
Mooneyham and Schooler (2016) point out that research on mind wandering “has produced a substantial array of findings that implicate it as a detrimental process” (p. 1273).
Although it may indeed have a negative side, Mooneyham and Schooler are quick to add that:
“…mind wandering is such a prevalent occurrence in the lives of most individuals that it seems unlikely that it could be purely maladaptive” (p. 1273).
Mind wandering may be a way to disengage a task that has become boring. Exerting cognitive resources on boring tasks is inefficient and most likely unproductive.
As Sara Briggs from Open Colleges informedED explains:
“Brief periods of mind-wandering can make us return to the task feeling a little more refreshed, or “dishabituated,” in effect letting us recharge our mental batteries.”
Dishabituation is a complicated process. It starts with the individual or animal becoming habituated to a given stimulus. Repeated exposure to that stimulus fails to evoke a response.
However, after being presented with a second stimulus, which is similar to the first, the organism dishabituates. That is, they exhibit the response to the initial stimulus they had displayed in the very beginning.
Research on dishabituation has focused on identifying the underlying biological mechanisms in the simplest of living creatures such as the sea urchin and rat.
Research on human beings has been more varied. Some studies have investigated how measures of dishabituation in infants might predict later IQ.
Other research has examined how habituation and dishabituation to warning signs may be problematic and detrimental to safety.
On the other hand, allowing one’s mind to wander may be an example of how dishabituation to boredom can reinvigorate our cognitive processing.
Harris, J. D. (1943) Habituatory response decrement in the intact organism. Psychological Bulletin, 40, 385–422.
Holmes, S. J. (1912). Phototaxis in the sea-urchin, Arbacia ountulata. Journal of Animal Behavior, 2, 126–136.
Humphrey, G. (1933). The nature of learning in its relation to the living system. Harcourt, Brace; New York:
Kavsek, M. (2004). “Predicting Later IQ from Infant Visual Habituation and Dishabituation: A Meta-Analysis”. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25(3), 369–393.
Kim, S., & Wogalter, M. S. (2009, October). Habituation, dishabituation, and recovery effects in visual warnings. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 53, No. 20, pp. 1612-1616). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W. (2016). Mind wandering minimizes mind numbing: Reducing semantic-satiation effects through absorptive lapses of attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23, 1273-1279.
Rankin, C. H., Abrams, T., Barry, R. J., Bhatnagar, S., Clayton, D. F., Colombo, J., … & Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation revisited: an updated and revised description of the behavioral characteristics of habituation. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92(2), 135-138.
Rosas, J.M. (2022). Dishabituation. In: Vonk, J., Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-55065-7_1293
Slater, A. (1997). Can measures of infant habituation predict later intellectual ability? Archives of Disease in Childhood, 77, 474-476.
Steiner, G. Z., & Barry, R. J. (2014). The mechanism of dishabituation. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 8, 14-21.
Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation: A history. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92(2), 127.
Vitale, N. L., Jackson, M. L., Bower, B. L., & Franco, S. (2020). Dishabituation of operant responding in preschool-aged children. The Psychological Record, 70, 347-358.