Imprinting in Psychology: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:29 Imprinting Research
  • 2:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peggy Olsen
Imprinting is an instinctual phenomenon which keeps a newborn animal close to its parent. Learn more about the process of imprinting, and test your knowledge with quiz questions at the end.

Definition of Imprinting

Why does a duckling follow the mother duck? How does it know which duck to follow? The answer is imprinting. Imprinting is an inherited tendency that newborn animals exhibit to respond to their environment. Ducklings, geese, and other animals imprint within hours of hatching and imprint on what they first see and follow it.

Imprinting Research

Although discussed by earlier researchers, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) was the first scientist to experiment with imprinting. He hatched two sets of goose eggs. One group of eggs was placed with a mother goose, and the other group was placed in an incubator. When the goslings hatched he found that the ones hatched in the incubator followed him, and the ones that hatched with the goose followed the goose. Even when he put both groups together, the incubator goslings followed him, and the other ones followed the goose.

In the laboratory, psychologists have used inanimate objects such as blocks and watering cans when experimenting with imprinting. In a natural setting, young animals imprint on the parent, but based on Lorenz's research and laboratory research, they imprint on what moves (including a watering can) if that is the only thing they see that moves. Imprinting ensures the young animal stays near the parents for safety. Lorenz found that imprinting went beyond impacting the behavior of young birds but also their sexual preferences as an adult.

Lorenz discussed the implications of imprinting, which include the idea of sensitive periods of learning. These are limited periods of time during which imprinting must occur, otherwise, it won't occur at all. In chickens, the impact of imprinting is strongest in the first few hours and must occur within three days, or it will not occur.

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