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Techniques Conditioning > Sensitization

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Sensitization is the process of a subject becoming very sensitive to a stimulus such that it builds an amplified response to the stimulus. During sensitization, the action may be completed increasingly faster and in a more exaggerated way.

Sensitization happens when a stimulus is repeated frequently. It can also be caused by anticipation of a particularly pleasurable or feared event.


A dog likes going for a walk. The owner only has to pick up a coat for the dog to start frantically dancing and barking.

After being 'nagged' by his mother, a teenager develops a pattern of angry outbursts. This in turn winds up his mother and they have regular acrimonious arguments about relatively minor incidents.


In the brain, repeated thoughts and actions train sequences of neuron firing, thereby embedding these so they are more and more easily accessed. This is a common way in which learning occurs.

The amplified response of a sensitized subject may in turn sensitize others. This can be lead to escalation and argument as both fall into a sensitized, reactive state.

In some ways, sensitization is the opposite of response lag, where a subject is slow to respond with the desired reaction.

Sensitization can often be a startle response and is often associated with anxiety. As the stimulus is constantly repeated and the subject obeys, it is as if they are saying 'Look, I'm doing it! What more do you want??' This may be based around a control issue, where the subject feels they are stuck and unable to escape an endless round of repetition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, repetition is also associated with dysfunctional states such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sensitization can also happen as a result of trauma.

Cross-sensitization occurs where other stimuli become 'infected' such that they also lead to the sensitized response.

Desensitization happens as a subject becomes accustomized to a stimulus and consequently response less to it as the reinforcing effect

See also

Amplification principle, Repetition principle, Using repetition


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