Communication Habituation and Communication
Chris R. Sawyer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0208


Many researchers have observed that repeated exposure to an intense stimulus diminishes its capacity to excite. Moreover, that this change in stimulus potency persists with little or no rebound over time. This phenomenon, known as habituation, was one of the first discoveries of the fledgling science of psychophysiology in 1917. Since then, habituation has been viewed as instrumental to the effectiveness of workers who must operate in stressful or potentially life-threatening environments, including first responders, emergency medical personnel, and the military. Although few will take up dangerous professions, such as firefighting and law enforcement—or participate in extreme sports such as skydiving—almost everyone seeks out exciting forms of entertainment. Amusement park rides offer a more common and relatable example of habitation. Roller coasters and similar attractions provide brief and intense physical stress on riders that can be repeated reliably because the speed and course of the ride remains consistent. First-time riders will find their experiences exhilarating while safety inspectors will see the ride as tedious and boring. How can one account for these differing reactions to the same stimulus? Apparently, riding the same park attraction often enough eventually ruins its capacity to excite. Although the more experienced riders have learned what to expect at each moment of the ride, they have also undergone changes at the neurological and physiological levels as well. This interplay of cognitive and biological factors has intrigued clinical psychologists, speech anxiety researchers, and media scholars and has inspired them to understand the effects of habituation on social interaction.

General Overviews

Ax 1964 identified the central goal of psychophysiology as the discovery of the translator mechanism, which he described as the systems within human biology that transfer information between the body and the mind. Ax’s comment was particularly noteworthy because it appeared in the lead article in the first issue of the journal Psychophysiology. Since that time, the quest for Ax’s translator prompted psychophysiologists to observe changes in human physiology that coincide with the moment-by-moment fluctuations of psychological states, such as excitement and fear. With these early studies, clinical researchers and academic psychophysiologists began to notice that emotions and other psychological states did not remain constant but had definite and predictable patterns. Eventually, these recurrent patterns became recognized as indicators of psychophysiological phenomenon in their own right. For example, Robinson and Gantt 1946 labeled momentary increases in arousal and vigilance that accompany new stimuli as the orienting response. Studies of the orienting response led to the discovery of two additional response patterns, which Groves and Thompson 1970 called habituation and sensitization. That is, when organisms were repeatedly given the same stimulus, their highest levels of arousal usually occurred during the first presentation and then decreased with each presentation thereafter. Harris 1943 called this “habituation” because it was a general term for similar phenomena. Among the first uses for habituation was Epstein 1971, which explained the effects of trait anxiety on skin conductance. Decrements in response or arousal with repeated stimulation are among the most commonly observed patterns in the biological and social sciences. However, there were exceptions to this general rule in which peak arousal was observed at other moments. Under some conditions, peak amplitudes rose so sharply they resulted higher overall levels or slower rates of decline. Solley and Gardner 1960 appears to be the first work to use the term “sensitization” when referring to increased response to repeated stimulation. However, many notable researchers had observed this phenomenon including Ivan Pavlov and Clark L. Hull. More recently, researchers have sought to explain the interrelationship of these two phenomena. One of the more notable findings is the observation in McSweeney and Murphy 2009 that sensitization increases stimulus potency and that habituation diminishes it. According to McSweeney and Swindell 2002, the dual processes of sensitization and habituation provide a powerful yet elegant explanation for human motivation and behavior. Sensitization and habituation frequently co-occur within the same experimental conditions. However, the following bibliography focuses on the more common of the two response patterns, habituation. Specifically, it examines underlying mechanisms of habituation, its role in reduction of communication apprehension, evidence for habituation in patterns of speech anxiety, and habituation as an explanation for other communication phenomena.

  • Ax, A. F. 1964. Goals and methods of psychophysiology. Psychophysiology 1.1: 8–25.

    E-mail Citation »

    It is rare to find a succinct description of the goals of any academic field let alone one written by one of its founders. According to Ax the aim of psychophysiology is “to describe the physiological processes directly relevant to such psychological constructs as drive, motivation, attitude, emotion, and their modification by learning” (p. 1).

  • Epstein, S. 1971. Heart rate, skin conductance, and intensity ratings during experimentally induced anxiety: Habituation within and among days. Psychophysiology 8.3: 319–331.

    E-mail Citation »

    This early study shows that habituation of the anxiety response can occur between exposure sessions. This finding points to cognitive elaboration in habituation processes. Unlike simple adaptation to a stimulus, which is often followed by rebound, habituation represents the effects of memory and learning. Consequently, the effects of habituation persist longer over time than for simple adaptation.

  • Groves, P. M., and R. F. Thompson. 1970. Habituation: A dual-process theory. Psychological Review 77:419–450.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0029810E-mail Citation »

    Groves and Thompson give one of the earliest accounts of habituation and sensitization as dual processes. Specifically, though related and observed together under the same experimental conditions, habituation and sensitization appear to emanate from separate sub-systems within the human nervous system.

  • Harris, J. D. 1943. Habituatory response decrement in the intact organism. Psychological Bulletin 40:385–422.

    E-mail Citation »

    The term “habituation” is generally attributed to Harris’s work. This article is the one most often cited when providing a historical reference for the term.

  • McGuinness, D. 1973. Cardiovascular responses during habituation and mental activity in anxious men and women. Biological Psychology 1.2: 115–123.

    E-mail Citation »

    High and low trait anxiety participants were studied for their rates of habituation to repeated exposure to an acoustical stimulus (a 60-db tone). In this case, measures of heart rate were used to indicate habituation. Study participants with high trait anxiety displayed slower rates of adaptation than their low trait anxiety counterparts.

  • McSweeney, F. K., and E. S. Murphy. 2009. Sensitization and habituation regulate reinforcer effectiveness. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 92.2: 189–198.

    E-mail Citation »

    Previous research by these researchers has supported the contention that sensitization increases the potency of stimuli and that habituation reduces it. McSweeney and Murphy conclude that habituation is a more elegant and potentially more powerful explanation for the human behavior and motivation.

  • McSweeney, F. K., and S. Swindell. 2002. Common processes may contribute to extinction and habituation. Journal of General Psychology 129:364–400.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221300209602103E-mail Citation »

    McSweeney and Swindell conclude that habituation helps to explain the phenomenon of extinction in classical and operant condition. That is, extinction occurs, in part, because of habituation resulting from repeated or continuous exposure to the stimulus.

  • Robinson, J., and W. H. Gantt. 1946. The cardiac component of the orienting reflex. Federal Proceedings of American Societies for Experimental Biology 5.1: 87–88.

    E-mail Citation »

    Robinson and Gantt were among the first Western researchers to document the orienting reflex. The orienting response had long been a phenomenon studies by Russian and later Soviet psychologists, whose approach to the discipline was more physiological.

  • Solley, C. M., and M. Gardner. 1960. Sensory learning. In Development of the perceptual world. Edited by C. M. Solley and G. Murphy, 201–219. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    Solley and Gantt use the term “sensitization” to describe progressive increases in responsiveness with repeated or prolonged presentation of a stimulus. Although many notable researchers, such as Clark Hull and Ivan Pavlov, had observed the same phenomenon no single term was universally accepted.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.