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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

Habituation: Blindness to the Familiar

I sat in a sociology class listening to the professor talk about the discrimination women in other cultures experience, how they are often deprived of the same privileges as men at home and in the world of work. She spoke of gendered expectations that lead women and men down different paths toward different goals. She spoke of inequality in pay and in time devoted to childcare.

Next week, she said, we would discuss the status of gender in the United States.

Oh, good, I couldn’t wait! It would be nice to focus on how we Americans have overcome gender barriers, how we have risen above discrimination, how males and females are treated equally and therefore share equally in occupational and household activities. I enthusiastically read the assigned chapter for the following week.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that females are still lower on the pay scale than men, even in the US. That even though the number of hours women spend in paid employment has increased, women still perform the majority of childcare tasks. That husbands' responsibilities still tend to focus on chores requiring sporadic attention (cutting the grass, fixing broken things), while women typically do the tasks requiring daily attention, like meal preparation and laundry. That this leads to a “leisure gap,” a difference in the amount of time men and women have for leisure pursuits.

All of this was happening right here in my own “backyard”! Why had I never noticed these inequities before. How had I missed seeing the many ways males and females are treated differently here in my own country?

Social psychologists tell us this “habituation” to the familiar is not uncommon. We get so used to something, it no longer demands our attention.

While habituation saves us time and effort by reducing the amount of information we must process, it can serve to make us error-prone. We sometimes fail to see the misspelled word or unclear sentence when we’ve looked at our piece of writing for too long. This is one reason a fresh pair of eyes can see in an instant what we have failed to catch.

Habituation can also be dangerous, like when we fail to see inequity between people because it’s the way it’s always been. We often need someone else to point out what we’re missing.

I admit it. I enjoy being that person. I enjoy pointing out the obvious gender inequities we still have in our culture and seeing the “Aha!” moment register on my students’ faces. When they tell me they now notice what they have previously dismissed and wonder why they haven’t noticed it before, I know I’m doing my job.

I’m also thrilled when they go out and increase others’ awareness. I know I’ve accomplished my goal when they begin passing on to others what I’ve given them.

I appreciate those who have opened my eyes, cherish the opportunities I’ve had to do the same for my students, and am proud when I see my students join the ranks.

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