Woman doing the daily grind: walking to work asleep.

Are you a victim of habituation too? Here’s how to combat it

6 March 2024

The article at a glance

What is habituation and how does it impact our perception of the world, freedom and social issues? An interview with Professor Cass R Sunstein helps us understand and learn how to combat it.

PhD researcher, Lisa-Maria Tanase, PhD researcher, recently interviewed Cass R Sunstein, a fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School’s El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics and Policy, about habituation and its impact on our perception of the world, our freedom and social issues. Here we summarise some key points from their discussion on habituation and the ways in which we can combat it.

Lisa-Maria Tanase.
Lisa-Maria Tanase
Cass Sunstein.
Professor Cass Sunstein

What is habituation?

Cass Sunstein, Cambridge Judge fellow and Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, recently co-authored a book entitled ‘Look again’, which takes a look at the behavioural science concept of ‘Habituation’.

Habituation is when we become accustomed to things over time, which can make us less sensitive to their positive or negative aspects.

People habituate to the existence of corruption and they habituate to the lack of freedom.

Examples of habituation

Below are examples of things we might habituate ourselves to.


Taking the beauty of things for granted

Taking the beauty of our surroundings for granted, event in stunning places like Cambridge.


Normalising negative aspects of our environment

We might normalise negative aspects of our environment, such as crime or danger – we then see them as less concerning.

This seems to really echo also a broader concept of perhaps compassion fatigue in our society, where it seems that constant exposure to news of wars of violence throughout the world can sometimes lead to a dulled emotional response.


Not talking about things we’re ashamed of

Some people habituate to something they’re kind of ashamed of, so they don’t talk about it.


Becoming desensitised to serious issues

Becoming desensitised to serious issues like domestic violence or corruption due to their constant presence. There are many people all over the world who are habituated to criminal activity.


Accustoming ourselves to weather conditions

Tough weather conditions is something to which people have habituated. It’s going to get worse with climate change, where it might be extremely hot.

Ways we can combat habituation

During the interview Professor Sunstein suggested the following ways to counter habituation and maintain our capacity for empathy and action.


Seeking new perspectives

Visiting new places or engaging with different viewpoints can help us see the world through fresh eyes


Actively seeking out positive experiences

Focusing on gratitude and appreciating the good things in life can counteract the numbing effect of negativity.


Challenging our assumptions

Reflecting on our own biases and questioning the status quo can help us identify areas where habituation may be hindering our judgment.


Trigger your own cognitive surprise signal

It can be hard to recognise dangers until it is too late. An example being the rise of authoritarianism – it often occurs incrementally. We can can try to trigger our own cognitive surprise signal, so that we are alert to potentially dangerous incremental changes – as if the brain should be saying “Hold on my friend, what are you doing?”


Look at the science: recognise the wonderful things

We often don’t notice the wonderfulness in life and seeking to change it. We can instead look at the science about what gets us to notice the wonderful things in our lives.

People are not immovable, they can be nudged to look again, and keep being aware of incremental changes that affect their lives.

Be aware of the power of habituation

In conclusion Professor Sunstein emphasises the importance of staying alert to the power of habituation and actively seeking out ways to maintain our sensitivity to the world around us. By doing so, we can better appreciate the positive aspects of life and act against negative trends.

On the larger scale, the concept of habituation can be negated by policymakers to maintain organisational health, fairness and justice.