15 Habituation Examples (In Psychology)

15 Habituation Examples (In Psychology)Reviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

habituation examples and definitions

Habituation is the decreased response that occurs as a result of repeated exposure to a stimulus.

When first exposed to a stimulus, such as a sound, the stimulus will get our attention and evoke a response (a ‘conditioned stimulus‘).

However, after experiencing the stimulus repeatedly over a prolonged period of time, we may develop sensory adaptation, and the stimulus may cease to evoke a response anymore. This is habituation.

Even something that evokes a fight or flight response at first – like loud explosions – may become habituated over time. This is a core concept in behaviorism and classical conditioning theories.

Habituation Definition

Habituation is a phenomenon that occurs when a stimulus, repeated over time, ceases to lead to a psychological response to the stimulus.

Although the study of habituation has existed for decades (Grover & Thompson, 1970), research since has expanded and refined the initial conceptualization.

Some other definitions from psychology literature include:

  • “Habituation can be defined simply as a decrement in the behavioral response during repeated presentations of the same stimulus.” (Levitan & Kaczmarek, 2002)
  • “Habituation is defined as the reduction in response to a repeatedly performed movement.” (Minor & Poe, 2010)
  • “Habituation is a decrease in a response to a stimulus after repeated presentations.” (De Groot & Hagoort, 2017)

Habituation is actually an adaptive behavior. If a stimulus has no significance, then it is better for the organism to not waste time and resources responding.

Habituation Examples

  • Perfume smells: Wearing a perfume or cologne every day for several weeks to the point that you no longer notice it at all.
  • Tuning out music: Not being distracted by music playing in the room while reading.
  • Cold habituation: People that come from cold-weather countries can be seen walking around in shorts in the winter when visiting warmer climates, while the locals are fully-dressed in winter coats.      
  • Noisy neighbors: Being able to tune-out the noisy neighbors in your dorm because you are so engrossed in studying.  
  • Spicy foods: At first, spicy food might seems very strong, but after eating spicy food for a year, you have to use a lot more just to taste it.  
  • City noises: Living in a noisy city for the first time can be very annoying, but after a while, all that racket seems to disappear.   
  • Pain: The first few times having acupuncture can be painful. But, by the 5th session, the needles are hardly noticeable.
  • Heat habituation: Living on the equator can be almost unbearable in the beginning. But after living there for several years, the heat seems normal.   
  • Rewards becoming boring: Receiving gold stars for doing well on spelling tests used to be exciting for students. But now a gold star seems a little boring.  
  • Getting used to your partner’s bad habits: Your romantic partner’s table manners used to be quite annoying. But after several years of marriage, they’re hardly noticeable.
  • Using a standing desk: At first, standing for long periods of time can be tiring and uncomfortable. But after using a standing desk regularly, it becomes the norm.
  • Morning routines: When first waking up, brushing your teeth, showering, and getting dressed can feel like a daunting task. But over time, it becomes automatic and requires no thought.
  • Daily commutes: Initially, driving long distances to work can be exhausting and time-consuming. But after a while, it becomes a familiar routine and can even be relaxing.
  • Using contact lenses: Wearing contact lenses can be uncomfortable and irritating, but after wearing them regularly, it becomes unnoticeable and convenient.
  • Exercise routines: Starting an exercise routine can be strenuous and painful, but over time, it becomes a healthy habit and the discomfort lessens.
  • New jobs: Starting a new job can be overwhelming and confusing, but after a while, it becomes a familiar routine and the tasks become second nature.     

Go Deeper: A List of Behaviorism Examples

Case Studies of Habituation

1. Habituation of the Startle Response

Even loud stimuli that are quite startling can eventually be habituated to after a while. When studying aspects of conditioning, the famous Skinner Box is a valuable tool for conducting research under well-controlled circumstances.

The above video shows a rat being habituated to a very loud noise. At first, when the rat hears the noise, it exhibits the startle response. It immediately jumps and appears a bit nervous for several seconds afterwards.

However, after the 5th or 6th presentation of the noise, the rat seems to hardly notice at all. In fact, it exhibits not even the slightest jump or pause.

This is a classic demonstration of habituation.

2. Habituation in Snails

You can still experiment with habituation if you don’t have a Skinner Box lying around the house (or a spare rat). The process can be demonstrated with a common garden snail, which can be easy to find around fresh water. 

The above video demonstrates how to demonstrate habituation. First, make sure the snail is awake, which is when their eye stalks are out and they are moving about.

Next, take a twig and lightly touch the snail between the eye stalks. The snail should retreat inside their shell immediately.

Wait several seconds and the snail will appear again. Repeat the light touch once more and observe the snail retreat once again. However, this time the snail might not retract into the shell fully.

After repeating this sequence just one more time (the 3rd time) the snail may no longer exhibits the startle response. It has already fully habituated to the touch.  

3. Habituation And Conservationism

There can be many benefits to allowing tourists to explore exotic lands and encounter endangered species. But before that can happen, those animals must lose their fear of humans so they don’t attack upon first sight.

That is accomplished through habituation. In the above video by the Smithsonian Channel, tour guides gradually approach a troop of gorillas…very slowly.

After repeating their approach over several weeks, and the gorillas realizing they mean no harm, they will become habituated to human presence.


This paves the way for tourists. When that happens, it can lead to many positives.

For example, tourists may feel a stronger bond with these amazing creatures and become concerned for their welfare. They can also see what deforestation is doing to their natural habitat.

When people witness the destructive impact of human behavior first-hand, they are more likely to become environmentally conscious and take action to help save those habitats. 

4. Infant Habituation

For an infant, every day is full of encountering novel stimuli. They will stare at each unfamiliar object, study it, maybe even reach out and attempt to grasp it. But of course, eventually, they might get bored and turn away.

The above video demonstrates habituation in an infant that is just a few months old. The researcher presents a novel stimulus (a bottle of cayenne pepper) and records how long the baby examines the object visually before turning away.

He then removes the bottle from the baby’s view, and presents it again later. This process is repeated several times and the amount of time the baby visually examines the bottle is graphed.

As can be seen, the baby’s interest decreases rapidly, from 32 seconds, to 14 seconds, to 6. Finally, on the 4th and 5th presentations, the baby only looks at the bottle for 2 or 3 seconds. The baby has become almost fully habituated to the bottle.

5. In the Treatment of Phobias

Having a phobia can make life very difficult. A fear of closed-in places means don’t get a job in a high-rise. A fear of water means you’ll never work for the Coast Guard.

Fortunately, there are many effective treatments for phobias. Some of them utilize habituation.

For example, if someone fears heights, a therapist might ask their client to stand on the bottom rung of a ladder. At first, this might be quite stressful. However, over time and with practicing relaxation techniques, that height will no longer be anxiety-producing.

Then, it’s time to move up one step. The relaxation process is practiced again, and when the client has habituated to the height, they can take one more step up.

In addition to phobias, similar procedures can be implemented for other stressful situations such as public speaking or job interviews. The first time a person gives a speech it can be terrifying. But after a few years, they will have habituated to the entire situation and exude calm and confidence.

Conclusion

Habituation occurs when a person or organism no longer has a response to a stimulus. Even if the stimulus originally evoked a strong response, over time and repeated exposure, the response gradually becomes weaker.

Habituation occurs in many aspects of our daily lives. For example, noisy roommates may make studying impossible at first, but after a while they are hardly noticed.

Spicy food might make us feel like our mouth is on fire on first taste, but after living in a culture where spicy is the norm, our taste buds get used to it.

We might notice our perfume or cologne after we just bought it, but a few weeks later it seems as if we need to apply a little more.

Habituation is an adaptive response to stimuli that have little significance or impede our progress in some regard. This allows us to allocate our physical and mental resources to areas that are more constructive.

References

De Groot, A. M., & Hagoort, P. (Eds.). (2017). Research methods in psycholinguistics and the neurobiology of language: A practical guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Ferster, C. B, & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of Reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/10627-000

Groves, P. M., & Thompson, R. F. (1970). Habituation: A dual-process theory. Psychological Review, 77, 419-450.

Levitan, I. B., & Kaczmarek, L. K. (2002). The neuron: cell and molecular biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Minor, L. B., & Poe, D. (2010). Glasscock-Shambaugh Surgery of the ear. PMPH-USA.

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.

Skinner, B. F. (1979). The shaping of a behaviorist. New York, Knopf.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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