Habituation occurs when a person or animal’s original response to a stimulus decreases after repeated exposure.

What is Habituation?
Habituation is a kind of learning that enables acclimation to new stimuli. It works with both people and animals, and is a commonly used to treat phobias and fears. For example, a therapist might attempt to habituate someone with a needle phobia to needles by gradually exposing him/her to needles in a closer and closer proximity. Habituation would occur when the phobic reaction either disappeared or was greatly diminished.

The time period to habituate someone to a particular stimulus varies greatly. Habituation to frightening stimuli can take much longer. The process of socialization is also a form of habituation; people are regularly exposed to other people and therefore do not react aggressively or fearfully. However, children who are not exposed to people may be fearful.

Habituation is commonly used in dog training. Dog trainers often encourage owners to socialize young puppies so that they do not develop fear or aggression problems, and this socialization is a form of habituation. Dogs with aggression or fear problems may be slowly habituated to the problematic stimulus. A dog who disliked cats, for example, might be shown a cat from twelve feet away and given a treat, and on each successive day, the trainer might decrease the distance between the dog and the cat.

Habituation and Mental Health
Because habituation plays a role in social skills, fear, aggression, and many other psychological traits, mental health professionals frequently deal with habituation. Habituation can also play a role in substance abuse. People with long-term addiction typically become accustomed to a certain dose of a drug and may require more of the drug to get the same response. Addiction counselors may gradually taper down the dose of the drug or encourage the client to completely give up the substance and then become re-habituated to life without drugs.

Therapists can use a variety of options to habituate people to problematic stimuli. For example, exposure therapy, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and group therapy can all be used to enable habituation.


  1. Cherry, K. (n.d.). What Is habituation? About.com Psychology. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/hindex/g/def_habituation.htm
  2. Habituation. (n.d.). Animal Behavior Online. Retrieved from http://www.animalbehavioronline.com/habituation.html

Last Updated: 08-7-2015

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