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Meryl Streep

The Habituation Bias. That’s what they have in common.

On 14 November, much of the world woke up to the horrific news of ISIS’ brutal attack in Paris, France the night before, killing 130 innocent people. We all watched every news source closely for updates, changed our Facebook profile photos to have a French flag overlay, and met for drinks with friends and strangers wherever we were in the world to celebrate the French love of happy times.

Roughly just 24 hours before, over 40 people were killed in an ISIS attack in Beirut, Lebanon. We didn’t hear about any of this until articles published a couple of days after the Paris attacks brought the Lebanon incidents to light. None of us changed our Facebook profile photos to have a Lebanon flag overlay. Facebook did not create a Safety Check for people in Beirut.  Somehow, we did not bat as much an eyelid for Lebanon as we did for France.

The reason? It’s not that the lives of people from Beirut are less valuable than those of people from Paris. It’s that, very sadly, such incidents, though of varying scales, have happened more in Lebanon and its neighbouring countries, which some of us conveniently term as a ‘turmoiled region’. In just 2015, there have been several mass attacks killing at least 100 and wounding upwards of 300 people. Add to this many more onslaughts exponentially increasing the human casualty when considering the geographic region.

Such oft distributed strikes have created a repetitive pattern in our minds. Each one is devastating for those involved, no doubt. However, for the casual spectator, unfortunately these repetitions begin to blur, and gradually lose the ability to inspire shock.

This is due to habituation. The definition of Habituation in Cognitive Sciences is this:


noun ha·bit·u·a·tion \-ˌbi-chə-ˈwā-shən, -chü-ˈā-\ 

: decrease in responsiveness due to repeated exposure to stimulus

When we witness the same thing again and again, we stop responding to it. Physical trainers encourage us to change our exercise routine often so that our bodies have fresh stimuli. Marketers introduce new advertising for the same product periodically so that we don’t automatically tune our minds out of the ad we’ve seen so many times before.

Whether it is something as trivial as an ad on TV or as chaotic as ISIS’ attack on a country, the subconscious element of habituation influences our reaction to patterns.

Because we’ve been unfortunately habituated to problems in Lebanon and its immediate neighbors, and fortunately not so to France, our reaction to the two incidents has been dramatically different.

So what does this have to do with Meryl Steep’s acting? The first time she was nominated for an Oscar in 1979, there was pomp for the relatively new face on the silver screen. Scoring her 19th nomination in 2015 raised few eyebrows. By this time, her audience is habituated into expecting stellar performances whether she’s playing the affable Julia Childs in Julie & Julia or the ambitious Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Habituation is a strong cognitive bias. Perhaps you could try noting where you catch yourself being habituated?

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