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A type of learning characteristic of fowls that occurs only during a critical period of development soon after birth.

Imprinting is the process that prompts ducklings to form an attachment to their mothers—or whatever other moving object that appears—within the first two days of life. Ethologists, scientists who study the behavior of animals in their natural environment, noted the process of imprinting as they observed newly hatched ducklings. They discovered that if a duckling were introduced to another moving object, alive or not, during a critical period after birth, the duckling would follow that object as if it were the mother. Humans and even wooden decoys successfully served as maternal substitutes after as little as ten minutes of imprinting. It has been discovered that once the process takes place, the ducklings will follow the substitute, even through adverse circumstances, in preference to a live duck. Imprinting does not take place anytime after the first two days of life because by that time, it is believed, ducklings develop a fear of strange objects. There is little evidence that imprinting occurs in humans or most other animals. It has been noted to some

Konrad Lorenz and his famous ducks. The ducks followed him as if he were their mother because of a process called imprinting. (Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

extent in dogs, sheep, and guinea pigs. The discovery and study of imprinting have prompted continued examination of the relative roles of instinct and acquired behavior in the process of learning.

Further Reading

Bower, Gordon H., and Ernest R. Hilgard. Theories of Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory