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Techniques Conditioning > Habituation

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Habituation is the process whereby a minimal stimulus reliably leads to an action. It is a form of learning where the whole process becomes automatic, such that the subject effectively runs the whole process themselves, often without needing any stimulus from others. It is often a process of conscious choice turning into unconscious action.

Habituation is commonly created by repetition over time, to the point where the action becomes automatic. Habituation may also be triggered by trauma and coping.

Habit can also come from procrastination, where a stimulus that 'should' lead to one set of actions is avoided by enacting an alternative set of actions (such as when the need to do certain work leads to a cup of coffee instead).


A dog gets used to being put outside to do 'its business' after a meal. Later, if it does not get to go outside soon after eating, it feels a pressing need to 'go' and may end up going by the door as it anxiously waits to be let out.

A child is taught to make its bed before being allowed to have breakfast. Even late in life, the habit of making the bed before breakfast continues.


Habit is different to addiction when addiction is defined as a chemical dependency, such as on tobacco or narcotics. Habits can be functional or dysfunctional, helping or harming the person affected, while addiction is almost always harmful. We all have many habits, as do many species. Habituation is a mechanism that saves us from having to deliberately and consciously choose to do something every time. Habits can also start out useful and become unnecessary or even harmful.

Habituation often occurs as a form of adaptation where the subject becomes accustomed to a stimulus to the point where the stimulus is no longer as stimulating as it once was. Yet, strangely, the action still persists, even if the stimulus is replaced by some other nudge.

Habituated stimuli lead to urges to act in certain ways. When a subject is not allowed to complete a habit, they may become agitated and perhaps aggressive as the urge is unable to complete. In the brain, habituation acts to create repeatable patterns of synaptic connection, such that a stimulus reliably kicks off this pattern.

Habituation gets described as action without stimulus. Yet action does not happen without any stimulus. Smokers, for example respond to subtle cues such as the sight of a lighter or a certain time of day. Habituation certainly occurs where the initial stimulus is removed and the action continues to appear, yet this happens with a change in stimulus rather than the removal of all stimuli.  

See also

Habit, Addiction, Sensitization, Coping Mechanisms, Adaptation


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