What Is Habituation And Its Role In The Modern World

Whether you consider yourself a conscious cybercitizen or a sporadic link clicker who often forgets why he unlocked his phone. If you have Internet access – which, it seems, that you do. Despite the fact that you’ve explored a substantial part of the online world. You are likely always on the hunt for new things to click on. You crave something more. The reason? Habituation.

The scientific explanation of the term habituation is the following: “behavioral response decrement that results from repeated stimulation and that does not involve sensory adaptation/sensory fatigue or motor fatigue.”1

But for those who don’t have a wall covered with certificates externally showcasing your smartness – like me. And if you’re rarely surrounded by professors and scientists – also like me. We need a simpler explanation.

So, for the non-PhDs…

Habituation is getting used to things. By being repeatedly exposed to a certain behavior or event, you progressively become less excited by future occurrences of the same behavior or event.

Here’s an example:

Your favorite artist releases a new hit song. You are thrilled. You go to the store to buy new earbuds, so you can play the song even when you should be paying attention to something else. But after a while, you become accustomed to the lyrics and the sound. The initial excitement is no longer present. You even become bored with the song. This diminished excitement is habituation.

Here’s another example that is more important to point out. You hear a loud noise coming from your neighbor’s house. The strange sound immediately captures your attention. Whether you decide to do something about this or not. If these loud noises start to occur frequently. You’ll just perceive them as something common – normal even.

We get accustomed to things all the time. But sadly, this has a nasty side effect. Especially today, in the 21st century. A place where we are surrounded by sources offerings us immediate joys.

Below, I further explore what is habituation and how it (negatively) impairs our lives.

What Is Habituation and Why Is It Important?

We already covered what habituation is – the decrease of excitement to repeated stimuli.

In a way, the brain filters the incoming information and decides whether you should act or not.

An intriguing explanation of habituation is from an old Aesop fable:

“A fox who had never yet seen a lion, when he fell in with him for the first time in the forest was so frightened that he was near dying with fear. On his meeting with him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him.” Aesop Fables2

If something is new and considered a thread. You’ll do something about it. If it’s a common occurrence. You’ll just keep doing what you’re doing, neglecting the stimulus. After all, it doesn’t make sense to respond to everything happening around you. Especially if this something is considered part of the natural environment – e.g., the loud noises as mentioned above.

There are plenty of sources discussing the scientific importance of habituation.

Little publications, however, address “why habituation is important to understand in our modern age?”

As a curious individual, engaged in a never-ending battle against the evil algorithms trying to sabotage our capacity to focus. I found out that the concept of habituation plays a crucial role in our ability to manage the huge inflow of information we are presented with these days.

My conclusion is that we transitioned – you probably won’t like the answer even though you somehow know it – from lean disciplined individuals excited to go outside and engage with others, to… We turned into an army of humped, blinders-wearing half-asleep online haters.

Our surrounding environment is no longer so exciting. And though the online world is pretty standard too – we kind of know what to expect when we unlock our phones. There is this inner urge that something thrilling will find its way in front of our screens and relieve us from the monotonous everyday life.

Thus, we are forever looking. Searching for new things in the online realm.

Alas, the more we consume. The more we get used to what we consume. Eager to inject freshness into what seems like a never-escaping boringness. We return online even more inspired to find new stuff to click on. New stuff to buy. This creates a dangerous feedback loop that not only depletes our resources (money). But also hurts our ability to concentrate and appreciate what we currently have.

To understand why this is so. We need to look at the main characteristics of habituation.

What Factors Influence Habituation?

There are several characteristics of habituation that influence how quickly – or not – we’ll get used to certain stimuli.

  • Duration: Repeated occurrence of certain stimuli leads to a progressive decrease in our willingness to respond.
  • Frequency: If a certain stimulus is more frequent, we will faster get used to it.
  • Dishabituation: If a stimulus you were used to changes, this will increase the excitement. (That’s why getting random notifications is more exciting than getting scheduled messages.)
  • Intensity: Behaviors that offer spiking sensations are less likely to be habituated. (An extremely loud noise is not something you can get used to – which is good, car alarms are designed to produce loud noises for a reason. But this also means that we are more likely to increase the dosage – of the drugs we use, and the alcohol we drink – precisely because we want to experience these spiking sensations again.)

At first sense, these four might not look worthy of your attention. But they are constantly shaping how we respond to the world.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to understand this better.

How Does Habituation Occur?

Since our day-to-day life is basically a repetition of several general tasks – unless, you are ultra-rich or something, and you can afford to travel the world and do cool stuff daily. You will likely bounce around activities like: going to work, working, returning from work, and watching a show to forget about the dullness of your daily job.

Just a couple of years ago – when I was younger. The last step was even missing. There was no TV to watch – after a certain hour, there was simply no TV. You had no other option but to converse with the people in your hood – your parents and/or neighbors.

In a way, even if you happen to enjoy the work you do – or enjoy the conversations with the people next door. Our days look like a state of frozen helplessness. And if we are to place our excitement level on a graph. The graph will look like a flat line – like you’re in a coma or something.

A graph showing how habituation leads us to a boring life

Enters social media and the ever-expanding library of films to watch on Netflix and all the other streaming platforms.

Suddenly, you’re no longer walking from chore to chore, feeling like this hamster-wheel life will never end.

Salvation is just a click away. You just have to respond to the cues (the buzzes) your phone produces.

The modern world convinced us that we can only be happy as long as we experience new sensations. And given how easily accessible these new sensations are. We are forever shifting our attention away from what’s happening right now towards intense, rich thrills that are further diminishing our ability to appreciate what we have.

Here’s a relatable example…

Something new happens in your life. For example, you start a new job or you buy a house. Initially, life feels grand. Like everything is new and electrifying. Soon, though. The novelty of that experience wears off – due to the characteristics above. Hungry for more, we increase the frequency of our visits online – and not only, some might also steer towards extreme stuff like drugs or gambling.

A graph showing how we try to respond to habituation in the modern world - with more social media.
The spike in excitement is how we respond to novelty. Soon, though, we get used to the new event – habituation occurs. Trying to instill a fresh dose of enthusiasm in our days. We turn to things that offer us quick wins. Most commonly, interacting online on social media or by adding bad habits like smoking and/or drinking.

With each new novel bad habit that unlocks severe doses of dopamine.3 Complexity in our life also increases.

We pay less attention to our work. To our spouse. To our body and mind. This leads to increased stress levels and an inability to tame the desires for more.

Theories of Habituation

There are two main theories of that can help us better understand how habituation leads us towards desiring more new and different experiences:

1. Stimulus-Model Comparator Theory

Formulated by Evgeny Sokolov, the Stimulus-model comparator theory suggest that our brains constantly create models of our experiences.4 The more we experience a certain stimulus. The more the model is reinforced. This means that in the future, when we experience something, we compare the situation to our portfolio of already established models. If the experience neatly meets the criteria of what we’ve seen so far. We either respond in the usual way – follow our established habits related to the specific cue. Or we begin creating a new model.

2. Dual-Process Theory

This theory proposes that we’ll respond differently depending on the severity of the presented stimuli, based on two opposing dynamics – habituation and sensitization. If you notice something you’ve noticed before – the exact same level of noise you’ve noticed a thousand times before, for example. Habituation takes over, and you don’t respond to the stimuli. But if the level of noise is slightly different. Sensitization wins. The state of arousal is greater (or different) from the previously observed model. Thus, you act differently.5

Problems Arising From Habituation

All this talk about how habituation turns every new experience into a dull routine leads to several problems you might have already experienced – or you are currently experiencing.

Consumerism

One conclusion based on the above is that the more we explore the world. The less exciting the world becomes.

You see more stuff. You buy more stuff. Then, you get used to these stuff. But since there is a growing pressure coming from the brain to desire novelty. Your dissatisfaction leads you to want more things.

No wonder why the world’s ultra-wealthy spend money on bizarre things – like 8 million on a 14-foot preserved shark.6

Relationships

Another problem is our relationships. We get used to the person we are with. We no longer notice their good and bad qualities.

The problem here is twofold:

First, we stop noticing what others do for us. This usually leads to taking the other person for granted. With time, the relationship is damaged because the partner feels unappreciated.

Secondly – which is the bigger problem. We can get used to pain. If the other person is physically hurting us. We can get used to this behavior and start thinking that it’s fine to be treated like a trash.

Inability To Concentrate

There are several things that make social media so damn addictive:

  • Frictionless experience for the users – free and easy to use.
  • An ongoing flow of new information – people sharing information freely, provides a constant source of something new to watch.
  • Numerous cues bring you back to the app – notifications, and fear of missing out.

But the biggest reason there are over 4.26 billion people scrolling the online pools of information remains the same – we are bored, and we want a dose of excitement in our lives.

In the book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari, after interviewing a bunch of scientists, reached the conclusion that all of this information hoarding leads to us losing our ability to focus.

A large part is exactly because of social media. The more information you have access to, the less time you have to focus on any individual piece, causing you to simply jump from topic to topic without ever thinking deeply about a subject.

The Work We Do

When the novelty related to the work you do wears off. You stop paying attention to the details. Motivation levels diminish and your main task during your working day becomes getting over with your working day.

As you can imagine, this not only can lead to losing your job. But it can also rise the levels of meaninglessness. That is, you lose faith that a job can lead to a meaningful impact.

How To Overcome The Problems Related to Habituation?

Once you see the bigger problem, you can’t unsee it.

Basically, the more we do the things we do. The less exciting they become. The conundrum here is that we can’t continuously experience new sensations – no matter how badly we crave for them.

Well, technically you can – thus, the puzzle – but this won’t lead to anything pleasant in the long run.

For instance…

  • You can date different people, but it’s unlikely that this will result in lasting happiness.
  • You can daily purchase new things, but this will result in an empty bank account.
  • You can spend your days scrolling through your feed looking for a cure from the monotonous daily life, but this will rarely lead to anything positive.

The question then becomes, how to enjoy life when we will inevitably start to loathe life?

Well, contrary to what you’d normally expect from a self-help-like article floating around the internet sea. I don’t have a precise answer.

No matter how many posts online explain how journaling can help in this situation – or being grateful for what you have. It’s hard to resist the dopamine-intensive stimuli electrifying your body when you check your phone for the 100th time today if you work for a cruel boss or your relationship is falling apart.

There are three principles, however, that might assist when the sameness of your daily life start to feel intolerable:

  • Awareness: Knowing that eventually, you’ll get used to the new car you’re considering buying is a powerful concept. Yes, something new will surely make you feel good right now. But realizing that this new thing will eventually become old – and the excitement will wear off. Will probably convince you that you don’t need it.
  • Empathy: Understanding that everyone else is also suffering from the same disease – bored of the status quo – even if they don’t realize it. Will probably change your reaction when your spouse demands to travel to a new place – even if the old one you visited is something you adore.
  • Long-term project: Based on my observations. The core issue related to our daily life and habituation is not that nothing ever excites us. It’s usually a lack of meaningful long-term projects. Some people write books because they want fame and fortune. Others write books because they are curious learners who want to share their experiences. The difference between the two is that the first group will stop when fame is reached – and then feel lost. The second group will keep learning and writing because the goal was never a finished book. But the process of learning and writing itself that brings joy.

The last part requires you to become – as the author of the great book Finite and Infinite Games says – an infinite player.

“Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.” James P. Carse

Some Closing Thoughts

One often mentioned example by scientists is how newly hatched chicks respond to flying objects. At first, their defensive behavior is to crouch every time they see a bird in the sky. Eventually, after a few uneventful experiences – a particular bird is not attacking them. Their crouching response is no longer observed – or at least not for a specific group of birds.

This example means that habituation to events should be highly specific. When you know that a sparrow won’t attack you, you save your energy for birds that will.

Meaning, that you shouldn’t allow getting used to certain behaviors while it’s OK to get used to others.

In the animal world, mistaking a hawk for a falling leave will lead to a fatal experience. In the human world, however, outcomes related to habituation rarely offer such quick feedback.

You can get habituated to a set of bad habits without realizing it.

Therefore, awareness of what tasks might be hurting you is the first step towards altering your daily life and instilling a dose of excitement – by introducing good daily habits, for example.


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Footnotes:

  1. Rankin, C. H., Abrams, T., Barry, R. J., Bhatnagar, S., Clayton, D., Colombo, J., Coppola, G., Geyer, M. A., Glanzman, D. L., Marsland, S., McSweeney, F., Wilson, D. A., Wu, F., & 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. On the web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2754195/
  2. Aesop. The Fox & the Lion. On the web: https://read.gov/aesop/071.html
  3. Neuroscientists explain that novelty is powerful and desirable because it triggers the release of dopamine. And dopamine is the feel-good hormone. The more we get it, the more we want it. Source: Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. On the web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181681/
  4. Sokolov EN. Neuronal models and the orienting influence. In: Brazier MA, editor. The central nervous system and behavior: III. Macy Foundation; New York: 1960
  5. GROVES, P. M., & THOMPSON, R. F. (1973). A Dual-Process Theory of Habituation: Neural Mechanisms. Physiological Substrates, 175-205. On the web: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-549802-9.50012-1
  6. Mar, Alex. Shark Woes. New York mag. On the web: https://nymag.com/nymetro/news/people/columns/intelligencer/11086/
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