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Konrad Lorenz's Imprinting Theory

Konrad Lorenz's Imprinting Theory

By Saul McLeod, published 2018, updated 2021


Lorenz (1935) investigated the mechanisms of imprinting, where some species of animals form an attachment to the first large moving object that they meet.

This process suggests that attachment is innate and programmed genetically.

He took a large clutch of goose eggs and kept them until they were about to hatch out.  Half of the eggs were then placed under a goose mother, while Lorenz kept the other half hatched in an incubator, with Lorenz making sure he was the first moving object the newly hatched goslings encountered

When the geese hatched Lorenz imitated a mother duck's quacking sound, upon which the young birds regarded him as their mother and followed him accordingly.  The other group followed the mother goose.

Lorenz found that geese follow the first moving object they see. This process is known as imprinting, and suggests that attachment is innate and programmed genetically.

Lorenz believed that once imprinting has occurred, it cannot be reversed, nor can a gosling imprint on anything else.

To ensure imprinting had occurred Lorenz put all the goslings together under an upturned box and allowed them to mix.  When the box was removed the two groups separated to go to their respective 'mothers' - half to the goose, and half to Lorenz.

For example, Guiton (1966) using chicks showed yellow rubber gloves to feed them during the critical period and the chicks imprinted on the glove. Suggests that young animal imprint on any moving thing present during the critical period of development. The chicks were then later found trying to mate with the yellow rubber glove.

This largely corroborates with the findings originally found in Lorenz’s study as this suggests the long-lasting effects the study as this is an irreversible change affecting social and sexual behavior known as sexual imprinting.

Imprinting does not appear to be active immediately after hatching, although there seems to be a critical period during which imprinting can occur.

Hess (1958) showed that although the imprinting process could occur as early as one hour after hatching, the strongest responses occurred between 12 and 17 hours after hatching, and that after 32 hours the response was unlikely to occur at all.  Lorenz and Hess believe that once imprinting has occurred it cannot be reversed, nor can a gosling imprint on anything else.

Hess (1958) showed that although the imprinting process could occur as early as one hour after hatching, the strongest responses occurred between 12 and 17 hours after hatching, and that after 32 hours the response was unlikely to occur at all.

Imprinting has consequences, both for short-term survival, and in the longer term forming internal templates for later relationships.  Imprinting occurs without any feeding taking place.

However, there are criticisms of imprinting as the concept of imprinting within Lorenz’s study suggests that within this context the object leads to an irreversible situation on the nervous system.

However, Hoffman (1976) suggested that this is not an irreversible change which is then further supported by Guiton (1966) which suggested that after spending time with their own species they were able to engage in normal sexual behavior suggesting that imprinting is moderately reversible.

APA Style References

Guiton, P. (1966). Early experience and sexual object-choice in the brown leghorn. Animal Behaviour.

Hess, E. H. (1958). Imprinting in animals. Scientific American, 198(3), 81-90.

Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie, 83, 137–215, 289–413.

Klein, S. H., Hoffman, H. S., & DePaulo, P. (1976). Some effects of early social stimulation on the emotional reactivity of ducklings. Animal Learning & Behavior, 4(3), 257-260.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, October 31). Konrad lorenz's imprinting theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Konrad-Lorenz.html

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