Non-associative Learning: Its Characteristics And Types

Non-associative learning

An important percentage of our behavior is due to learning. These learnings can be conscious but, in most cases, they occur completely casually, without us realizing which response we have related to which stimulus.

Non-associative learning is one of the ways in which living beings can change our behavior, causing our response to a given stimulus to be reduced or, in the opposite case, significantly increased. Below we will delve into this learning modality.

What is non-associative learning?

Non-associative learning is a permanent change in response to a stimulus due to repeated and prolonged exposure to it over a relatively long time. Normally, the change produced in the individual’s behavior has to do with the degree of response to the stimulus, that is, either it gives a weaker response or, on the contrary, it gives a stronger response.

An example of non-associative learning would be when we are in a bar. It is normal that, when entering the establishment, we hear the voices of other customers, who are chatting about their things.

As the minutes go by and we have a drink with our friends, we stop paying attention to the other conversations: we have gotten used to it. It no longer causes us to respond by losing the thread of the conversation or not being able to listen well to what our friends have to tell us.

The main characteristic of non-associative learning is that it is capable of causing changes in the behavior or response of the individual without the need for several stimuli relating to each other, hence the non-associative term.

It differs from its counterpart, associative learning, in the fact that this second occurs through the connection of ideas and experiences. A classic example of associative learning would be Pavlov’s experiment which, by presenting food to a dog and ringing a bell at the same time, made the dog associate the noise of that instrument with the food.

Non-associative learning It is one of the simplest types of learning, and it is common in many species As with associative learning, non-associative learning was originally described by behavioral psychology, a branch that originally focused exclusively on visible behavior and left mental processes aside. With the passage of time, mental processes have been taken more into account, and non-associative learning has been used in the therapeutic and educational field.

Non-associative learning It can occur through one of the following two processes: habituation or sensitization Generally, these processes are complementary and opposite, and they underlie many of our daily experiences and behavior.

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Types of non-associative learning

As we have commented, non-associative learning can occur in two complementary and opposite processes: habituation and sensitization. Both phenomena imply a change in the individual’s attitude or behavior as a result of repeated exposure to a specific stimulus. However, the way they each do it is different.

1. Habituation

We can define habituation as the learning process in which one or more of the components of the individual’s innate response to a stimulus decrease when continuously exposed to the same stimulus or on several occasions.

Among the components that can reduce its intensity we find some such as the probability of the response or its duration. That is, as the person receives the stimulus more times, the less tendency he has to emit a response, since he has become accustomed to it.

Habituation can occur with any type of physical or mental stimulus. The effect of habituation is more pronounced when the stimuli are presented frequently, since the organism ends up getting used to them. l

The same occurs with stimuli that provoke low intensity responses, since they end up decreasing more quickly than the most intense ones.

We have a fairly easy example to understand with clothing. When we put it on, we feel it. We may notice how tight the pants are, that the underwear bothers us a little, the bra is too tight… However, after a while, our brain generates a habituation response, blocking redundant information to be able to concentrate all the cognitive resources in other tasks.

Another case would be when we are watching a movie and the scene changes. Perhaps the new scene takes place in the countryside, where you can hear the birds singing and the summer breeze blowing. At first we will notice these noises but, after a while, we will not take them into account as much and we will focus only on what the protagonists say.

2. Awareness

Sensitization can be understood as the opposite process to habituation. When this phenomenon occurs, the response to the stimulus increases in intensity due to having been repeatedly exposed to it. This process would be behind both adaptive and maladaptive learning phenomena.

An example of sensitization would be what happens to a person when they constantly rub their arm. At first, the sensation may be pleasant but, after a few minutes and after having excited the peripheral nerves for a long time, it becomes a discomfort, even painful.

Another example would be the alarm clock. Alarm clocks have been made so that we cannot get used to their noise because, if that were the case, we would continue sleeping. That is why when we listen to them every morning, far from getting used to their melody, it is even more annoying, making us more sensitive to their melody.

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Is it present in other species?

Although many behaviors observed in the human species do not seem to occur in other species, this is not the case with non-associative learning. This behavior modification mechanism has been found in many living beings. Virtually all animals show some version of this, in addition to being found in plant species as is the case of Mimosa pudica and some protozoa.

Because of this, many scientists believe that non-associative learning must have been the first type of behavioral change to appear at an evolutionary level.

Possibly, this process has had a very important role in adaptation to the environment allowing living beings to save resources by avoiding overreacting to stimuli that occur frequently, as would be the case of habituation, or avoiding damage due to overexposure to them, as would be the case of sensitization.


There are multiple advantages that can be observed from non-associative learning.

1. Greater adaptability

Non-associative learning, especially habituation, is a mechanism that allows us to function in our environment very adaptively. If we did not have this capacity we would encounter all kinds of problems when it comes to functioning correctly in our daily lives.

When we are faced with a new stimulus, it is normal for our response to be very intense This happens with most changes. For example, if we have changed the brand of water we may notice that it does not taste the same and even has an aftertaste that does not convince us.

However, as we drink it we stop noticing its flavor. If this were not the case and we always noticed that taste, perhaps we would drink less water than we need and we would run the risk of becoming dehydrated.

2. Applicability

Both habituation and sensitization are two processes that They can be used in many ways, especially in the field of education, parenting and psychological therapy.

For example, when a child has just started going to school it is normal for him to feel uncomfortable, afraid and even want to cry, given that it is a completely unknown situation for him that does not provide him with security. However, as he goes to class he ends up getting used to it, relaxing and having a good time with his new friends at school.

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Regarding the field of therapy, habituation It is one of the most useful processes for eliminating phobias For example, a person who has a phobia of cockroaches has an irrational fear of these insects, which causes them to have a really bad time when they see them in their home and cause them to have a high impact on their life.

In therapy this fear is reduced through controlled exposure, showing the individual stimuli from lower to higher intensity until they show a less intense response and has gotten used to it.

3. Find new situations

Although habituation is emphasized in most behavioral experiments on non-associative learning, sensitization is also of great importance.

Awareness would be behind many advanced learning processes, especially in which it is necessary to acquire new skills. When this happens, The person is capable of detecting less intense stimuli, so that he or she could more easily give a more precise response.

For example, when learning to drive it is normal that in the first attempts after getting the license the person is excessively focused on the road and takes time to process all the stimuli. Instead, As you repeat these attempts, it will be easier for you to process all the information without having to put a lot of effort into it.


But just as it has a number of advantages, non-associative learning also has its disadvantages.

1. Reduces positive emotions

It is normal that when we find ourselves faced with a pleasant stimulus, it produces all kinds of joy, euphoria, satisfaction and other positive emotions. However, If the stimulus is repeated several times the emotional response will reduce, as would be the case in a habituation process. This is called hedonic adaptation.

If hedonic adaptation is not properly managed, there is a risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors. It is common to see this in people who say they are “adrenaline addicts”, exposing themselves to risky situations such as skydiving, racing cars, extreme hiking…

2. Addictions

And closely related to the previous disadvantage, we have that non-associative learning can play an important role behind drug addictions. The person who consumes a substance, as he takes it on new occasions, notices that he becomes accustomed to the drug, not causing the same sensations as the beginning and needing to increase the dose Thus, you risk increasing the damage of the drug in your body.

For example, alcoholism has habituation to alcohol as its main factor. The first time we drink a beer it can affect us quite a bit, since we are not used to it.

As we increase consumption, there will be a time when we will not notice anything when drinking 3 or 4 beers and we will say that we are “warming up.” To get “happy” we will need to drink more, and this is where the murky path of alcohol abuse disorder begins.