Abstract Habituation and recovery of the skin conductance reaction (SCR) and visual orienting reaction (VOR) were investigated. Half the subjects (total N = 48) were instructed to memorize a complex visual stimulus (TR), while the other half received a non task-relevant instruction (NTR). All subjects were exposed to two series of 16 identical stimuli. At trial 17 the location of the stimulus changed. Half the subjects in both groups received a priori information about the stimuli, the other half did not. Task-relevance led to slower SCR habituation and longer VORs. In the TR condition the VOR latency time rapidly decreased, indicating the development of a set. In terms of SCR frequency, but not in terms of SCR magnitude OR recovery was stronger in the task-relevant condition. However, all subjects oriented visually to the stimulus change. No habituation of the VOR was found using a drift-free technique for measuring eye-movements. It is concluded that the SCR and the VOR latency data supply evidence for a structural difference between task-relevant and task-irrelevant ORs.