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Habituation in Animals: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Habituation
  • 1:10 How Do Animals Habituate?
  • 2:54 How Has Habituation…
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

Habituation is a simple form of learning that all animals, including people, are capable of. In this lesson, you will learn what it is, how it occurs, and why it's a big energy saver.

Habituation

If you have spent any time outdoors in an area where there are lots of visitors, you may have experienced something like this story. Mike was on a hike with his family around Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, and they stopped on some rocks to have a picnic lunch. Not two minutes into their stop, along came some adorable, plump ground squirrels. Mike and his family were amused to watch the squirrels approach, wiggle their little noses trying to figure out what was for lunch, and seeing them surround the family, waiting for a handout. That is, until one scampered up Mike's pant leg onto his knee and tried to help itself to a sandwich.

This story is an extreme example of habituation. Normally, a wild animal that first encounters a human, or other possible threat, would run away and hide. A few more humans at regular intervals might make the animal less likely to react strongly, but people walking by all the time would probably make the animal indifferent at minimum and downright emboldened if there are snacks involved. Habituation is a lessened response to a stimulus after repeated exposures to it. It is one of the simplest forms of learning, and all animals are able to habituate when the conditions are right.

How Do Animals Habituate?

The likelihood that an animal (including a human) will become habituated depends on a few things. How often and how long the stimulus is around makes a big difference. A hiker walking by the ground squirrels once every few weeks without stopping is not as likely to habituate the animals as a constant stream of hikers, each stopping to take a photo of their antics. Sometimes the sensory system may actually stop sending signals to the brain, like when a person habituates to a gentle smell after spending a couple hours surrounded by it. But if the stimulus is removed for a while, the habituation can go away too.

Not all stimuli are neutral, though. If something bad happens when the animal is exposed to a stimulus, or the stimulus is really irritating, then the animal might become sensitized rather than habituated. Sensitization is a heightened response to a stimulus after repeated exposures to it. For most of us, it wouldn't be possible to get used to loud music coming from the apartment next door at 3:00am. We would likely become more sensitized and irritated by the disruption. Nor would a deer likely become habituated to a mountain lion that chases it down at every opportunity. Both scenarios would probably lead to sensitization instead of habituation.

It does seem like a bit of a gamble to become habituated to something that used to seem threatening. What if a rambunctious kid throws rocks at the ground squirrels every so often? The ground squirrels may have become so used to people that they wouldn't be as prepared to dodge the rocks. Yet, every moment spent being hyper-alert uses energy. Habituation filters through the large amount of information animals are taking in and sorts out the important from the less important, and that saves a lot of energy.

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