Imprinting

Imprinting is learning that occurs during a specific and limited time period in an animal’s life–usually shortly after birth. Although imprinting can involve any type of learning, it is most commonly associated with bonding and developing relationships.

What is Imprinting?

Although imprinting has been studied since the 19th century, it was popularized by animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz in the 20th century. Lorenz noticed that geese became attached to the first thing they saw after hatching. In Lorenz’s case, the geese imprinted on him and treated him like a parent, following him around. Animals that imprint on the first thing they see can imprint on different species and may be more closely bonded with members of a different species. Baby geese, for example, who are exposed to humans immediately after hatching might be more attracted to humans than to other geese in adulthood and might even demonstrate fear of other geese.

The imprinting demonstrated by Lorenz is an example of filial imprinting. Sexual imprinting is another form of imprinting that enables an animal to learn the traits of an appropriate mate.

Imprinting in Humans

Imprinting does not appear to be as time-sensitive and context-limited in humans as it is in some other animals. Instead, developmental psychologists generally talk about critical stages of development during which it is much more likely that a child will learn something. Children not exposed to language or social interactions during the first few years of life may never develop typical social skills; kids who grow up in such a deprived environment are sometimes called feral children.

Although some child experts have argued that bonding in the moments immediately after birth is important for a parent’s relationship with her child, children are clearly capable of bonding with many caregivers and do not need to see their parents immediately after birth to develop a relationship with them.

References:

  1. Imprinting — A case of birds gone wrong. (2008, June). Audubon Society of Portland. Retrieved from http://audubonportland.org/wcc/stories/imprinting
  2. My life as a turkey. (n.d.). PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/whos-your-mama-the-science-of-imprinting/7367/

Last Updated: 08-10-2015

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