The Psychology of Imprinting

Chelsie Wheeler, Peggy Olsen
  • Author
    Chelsie Wheeler

    Chelsie has been a private tutor and a peer mentor throughout her ten-year career as an environmental and fisheries biologist. She also has experience educating the public through various programs via outreach with presentations, festivals, and set courses. She has a bachelor of science degree in environmental management from Columbia Southern University and a master of science degree in coastal and marine environments from the University of Ireland, Galway.

  • Instructor
    Peggy Olsen

    Peggy has a B.S. in Psychology, Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling, and Master of Psychology. She has almost 30 years of experience in teaching and counseling for both elementary and college level students.

Learn about imprinting in psychology and learning. Discover imprinting in animals, signs of imprinting, and how sexual imprinting may influence speciation. Updated: 11/11/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Imprinting?

Imprinting is an inherited trait that some animals use as a means of survival. Imprint is defined as a behavioral trait that altricial animals experience hours after being born where they develop an extremely close bond with the animals they first meet, usually their parents.

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:29 Imprinting Research
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What Is Imprinting in Psychology?

Imprinting is a definition in psychology used to describe the behavior of certain types of newborn animals. It involves a specific set of learned or formalized connections or aversions that are established within a specific time frame after exposure.

Imprinting is a topic within the subset of ethology. Ethology is the scientific study of behavior in animals.

Most birds imprint on their parents after being born as a means of survival.


Konrad Lorenz: What Is Imprinting in Animals?

Altricial animals form a deep connection with their parents to ensure their survival. This is a type of evolution because it helps to ensure the fitness of the species by safeguarding the persistence of the animal's ability to pass on its DNA to the next generation.

Altricial animals need their parents to survive once born.


Konrad Lorenz was a zoologist who mainly studied behavioral patterns in animals which led to his study on imprinting. He was able to link how the behavioral patterns in animals develop as a means of evolution, a way for those animals to survive as a species. Species that are born in a vulnerable state and in need of constant care from their parents are known as altricial. The concept of imprinting is based on this idea of the altricial animal's need for their parents; by forming strong attachments, they increase their chance of survival. This type of special learning can only happen for a limited amount of time after the animal is born, or it will not occur at all. These periods are known as sensitive periods of learning.

Lorenz was not the first scientist to theorize the idea of imprinting. However, he was the first to prove the idea through successful experimentation. His work included a type of imprinting called filial imprinting in birds. One example of his experiments was done using ducks, and he found that after hatching, they would imprint on any moving animal or object that was present as a means of survival. Some examples of this could be the duck's parents, a human conducting the study, or even in some cases, a red ball. He also found that depending on the item the bird imprinted on, the object or animal would affect the duck's behavior later in life, even affecting their sexual preference. This level of imprinting behavior determining sexual preference is also an evolutionary byproduct. By selecting species that are similar to those present during imprinting, the animal helps to ensure the survival of their own species.

Signs of Imprinting

There are a few signs of imprinting that can determine if a newborn animal has made an attachment. The main determination in Lorenz's research was tested by separating the baby animal away from its mother, the object, or animal the young assumably imprinted on. After they have been separated for an extended amount of time, the object or animal was reintroduced for the newborn to follow. If the baby followed the theorized object or animal, it would have most likely imprinted on it.

The other major determining factor in understanding imprinting is introducing similar objects or animals that resemble the animal or object the animal imprinted on when it was a baby. Because one major theory of imprinting is that animals will pick similar animals to their parent because that is the animal it would imprint on, this test can reinforce the imprinting process. However, it would be tested later in the animal's life.

Types of Imprinting

There are three primary types of imprinting that have been discovered in psychological research.

  1. Filial imprinting
  2. Sexual imprinting
  3. Limbic imprinting (filial and sexual imprinting may also involve limbic imprinting)

Filial Imprinting

Filial imprinting is the most widely known type of imprinting that influences the connection between young and their parents or siblings. This type of behavioral bond allows the young to visually imprint on their parents as a means of survival. This unique bond also ensures that the young will recognize their parent or even different members within their species which is useful for reproduction.

Sexual Imprinting

Sexual imprinting is a type of behavioral trait that affects an animal's inclination towards a sexual mate from learned behavior, usually very early in life. This type of imprinting behavior influences mate selection later in life. It can be altered to make an animal prone to characteristics or choose against specific features. Psychologists are exploring whether imprinting is a factor in human mate choices.

The Westermarck effect is a type of aversion imprinting that may help select against breeding. This effect is also known as reverse sexual imprinting and theorizes that people who live together, usually in a family unit, early in life will most likely not develop sexual feelings for each other.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is animal imprinting?

Animals can exhibit all three types of imprinting which include filial, sexual, and limbic. Wolves exhibit filial imprinting as a means of learning social skills of their packs. Most animals exhibit sexual imprinting as a way to choose a mate that resembles their parents. Humans show limbic imprinting at birth and carry those memories throughout their lives.

What is human imprinting?

Humans can exhibit all three types of imprinting: filial, sexual, and limbic. Filial imprinting helps infants to bond with their mothers. Sexual imprinting helps humans to find similar yet different enough mates to their parents. Limbic imprinting is when humans retain experiences of their birth in their memory and use those memories throughout their lives.

How do wolves imprint?

Wolves imprint on their parents and tend to use filial imprinting as a means to learn the social skills of their species, which is highly complex.

What is meant by imprinting in psychology?

Imprinting in psychology is a behavioral trait that altricial animals experience hours after being born where they develop an extremely close bond with the animals it first meets, usually their parents.

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