What is Imprinting

Imprinting, or more specifically, filial imprinting, refers to the tendency for a young animal to follow the first large moving object it sees. It is also known to refer to other characteristics that an offspring both learns and inherits from his parent.

Imprinting, first reported by Douglas Spalding in the 19th century, and extensively studied by Konrad Lorenz, in his observations of greylag geese, show that imprinting is a result of a complex interplay between innate and learned behavior.

In his research, Konrad Lorenz, an ethologist, studied newly hatched greylag geese that were immediately introduced to an object other than its mother, such as Konrad Lorenz himself, a white ball, etc. Goslings would then follow Konrad Lorenz (or whatever large object they were introduced to immediately after hatching) and equate him as a mother figure. Lorenz conjectured that there was a certain period of time in which certain animal youth were sensitive to forming attachments with a mother figure who would then protect or provide for the animal youth.

While imprinting does not happen in human infants in the same way that it has been shown to happen in other species, a certain measure of parent-child bonding is shown to occur, and is referred to as attachment. While the first two days of a gosling’s life are deemed “sensitive” in regards to forming an attachment with a mother figure, for human babies, such attachment spans an infant’s first year, and develops as a result of innate attachment behaviors (for example, crying, clinging, sucking, etc.) that the infant displays.

The theory of attachment was first developed by John Bowlby (who was influenced by the work of Konrad Lorenz), and was later refined and expanded on by Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby suggested that an infant is born with certain innate behaviors that are designed to keep a primary caregiver in close proximity to the child, thereby ensuring the protection and safety of the child.

We see the importance of imprinting behavior in animal young as crucial to the survival of offspring in the wild, as predators and other factors can threaten the survival of newly born animal youth who are largely helpless at the start of their life. Attachment to a caregiver is nature’s biological safety net that keeps the animal youth in close proximity to a caregiver who will protect and provide for them. Attachment in human infants is successful in the same manner, as the behaviors that an infant displays are designed to cause the parent figure to provide and care for the infant.