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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The term, imprinting, as used by modern comparative
psychologists, refers mainly, although not exclusively,
to certain learning situations which occur very early
in the lives of ground-nesting birds. But the word is
also increasingly used more loosely, implying a partic-
ular aetiology (causal explanation) of adult modes of
behavior in both animals and human beings. Although


the notion of imprinting derives directly from
European zoological ethology (now defined as the
scientific study of animal behavior, especially in rela-
tion to habitat—not to be confused with ethology
as meaning “the science of character,” as used by
J. S. Mill, or with ethology, meaning environmentalism,
as used by Julian Huxley), its roots are deep in the
history of thought. It is especially related to the idea
of “indelible impressions on young minds,” long cur-
rent in philosophical writings. Thus, the old concept
of mental imprinting was a precursor of the later one
of behavioral imprinting.

1. Tabula Rasa. The idea that the child's mind is
initially a tabula rasa, a clean slate, was put forward
by John Locke, but it would appear that in this matter
Locke's thinking was influenced by that of the French
philosopher Gassendi. Both these writers were engaged
in a polemic against Descartes' notion of innate ideas,
and argued that all ideas derive ultimately from sensory
experience. Locke in his Essay concerning Human
(1689, Book I) held that, to start with,
the mind is a blank and that with time impressions
are formed upon it so that a basis is steadily created
for the whole of the individual's mental life. Some
suggestion of an initial tabula rasa may be traced back
at least to Saint Thomas Aquinas (in his dictum “noth-
ing is in the mind which was not first in the senses,”
De Trinitate, I, 3), but it was Locke who developed
the so-called empiricist view, viz., that the mind is
passive in learning, and that ideas gradually become
imprinted upon it, whereby it becomes “stocked” with
experience. The child's early experience is sensory, and
reflection (thinking) develops with maturation out of
such sensory learning. However, Locke's own interest
lay primarily in the character of the mature mind
rather than in the processes of mental development.

In contrast, the topic of early learning was the main
theme of the essay, Émile, or On Education, by Jean
Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Like Locke, Rousseau
argued that the human infant, though born with the
ability to learn, has initially no innate ideas. Experi-
ence, according to him, could account for all knowl-
edge; and since animals have senses, they, too, could
acquire knowledge. One of the first things that the
human infant learns is that he is powerless and de-
pendent upon the adult who cares for him. While the
notion of tabula rasa focused on the impressionability
of, and “exposure learning” by, the child, the emphasis
on the infant's dependency pointed to what very much
later came to be called instrumental learning. Rousseau
believed that early training could mold the child com-
pletely; in his belief in the efficacy of early education
he went too far, but he was quite right to emphasize
the initial pliability of the infant.

2. Instinct and Early Learning. We must note the
relevance of the writings of Charles Darwin to our
topic, even though the idea of imprinting played no
special part in his thinking. It is noteworthy that
Darwin (in Mind, 1877) showed great interest in child
development, including also infancy learning. More-
over, he was interested in linking together child psy-
chology and animal behavior; and this has contributed
to the subsequent development of modern comparative
psychology. And in concerning himself with instinctive
behavior, Darwin helped to prepare the ground for
the study of the interplay of instinct and early learning,
soon to be taken up by Spalding, and later, in different
ways, by both Freud and the zoological ethologists.

D. A. Spalding published in 1873, in Macmillan's
a paper entitled “Instinct, with Original
Observations on Young Animals.” In it he described
the behavior of young domestic fowl, and concluded
that newly hatched chicks will follow almost any mov-
ing figure. Spalding regarded such behavior as “un-
acquired,” that is, instinctive rather than learned. He
saw that these animals' ability to recognize parents,
as distinct from their approach and following behavior,
is not instinctive, but is, in fact, learned. He might have
concluded that early learning takes over at some stage
from instinct; for there is little doubt that chicks which
at first follow instinctively, then learn who their mother
or mother-substitute is, and are eventually able to
discriminate between her and other figures. This was
later more clearly recognized by William James in The
Principles of Psychology
(Vol. II, Ch. 24).

Spalding drew attention to a remarkable feature of
such early behavior, namely that the chick would fol-
low its mother, only if it had the opportunity to do
so early enough in life. If faced with her for the very
first time after the opportune or sensitive period has
passed, the chick would fail to follow her and would
show no affinity whatever to her; furthermore, it would
not subsequently be able to develop any attachment
to its mother. We now say that a chick becomes im-
printed to the mother-figure when it learns her charac-
teristics, and forms a tie to her. Spalding reported that
this development was confined to a short period soon
after hatching; and this has since become known, with
some degree of justification, as the critical period for

William James considered that many modes of in-
stinctive behavior, including approach and following
responses, “ripen” at some particular stage in the or-
ganism's life, and then wane again. He also thought—
and this is significant—that at the time of the instinct's
“vivacity,” a habit instigated by the instinct, but
specifically determined by the environmental circum-
stances encountered, is acquired. Such habit-formation


was regarded by James as consisting of the superimpo-
sition of early learning upon instinct. Furthermore,
James suggested that “in the chickens and calves...
the instinct to follow and become attached fades out
after a few days, and that the instinct of flight then
takes its place” (ibid., p. 398). This idea was later taken
up by experimentalists such as W. H. Thorpe, R. A.
Hinde and others, but, as research progressed, serious
doubts about it began to be entertained. However,
there is no doubt about the importance of the interac-
tion between “built-in” and learned behavior early in
the life of many avian and mammalian species, includ-
ing man.

3. The Contribution of Ethology. The term, if not
the idea, of imprinting derives from Oskar Heinroth
and from Konrad Lorenz. Heinroth, a German zoolo-
gist and ethologist, read a paper in 1910 in which he
described the behavior of incubator-hatched graylag
goslings (“Beiträge zur Biologie, nahmentlich Ethologie
und Psychologie der Anatiden,” Verh. 5 int. orn. Kongr.
[1910], 589-702). These newly hatched birds
showed no fear, and attached themselves readily to
human beings. Such man-attached goslings do not show
any inclination to approach and stay with parent-geese;
they behave as if they treated people as their parents.
This kind of attachment-behavior was described by
Heinroth by the verb einzuprägen, corresponding to
the English “to stamp in” or “to imprint”; and the
word “stamped in” had earlier been used, among
others, by Spalding, and above all, by Thorndike (“An-
imal Intelligence,” Psychol. Monogr., 1898) in relation
to firmly acquired modes of behavior.

The pioneer ethologist, Lorenz, used the noun
Prägung, or imprinting, in his seminal paper in 1935,
to refer to the process of rapid bound-formation early
in the life of the so-called nidifugous birds (the fowl,
ducks, geese, and the like). Lorenz went further than
Spalding or James in that he specified the charac-
teristics of imprinting, and thereby generated much
interest in it, which, in turn, has resulted in further
systematic observations and much controlled experi-
mentation in this area of animal behavior. It could be
said that Lorenz rather “stuck out his neck” in saying
initially that imprinting differed fundamentally from,
what he called, ordinary learning. First—he held—it
could take place only during a brief critical period in
the individual's life; and second, once it had taken
place, it could not be reversed. Furthermore, imprint-
ing was reported to occur very rapidly, without any
trial and error; and, above all, imprinting would show
itself, at maturity, in a courtship directed towards the
original mother-figure or figures similar to her.

It was later questioned whether these features, even
if true, would separate imprinting sharply from other
forms of learning. Indeed, Lorenz himself, some twenty
years after the appearance of his early papers, expressed
the view that imprinting might be a type of condition-
ing. Whether it is, or is not, would depend partly on
how narrowly or broadly conditioning is defined. But
even if imprinting were to be shown to be continuous
with, or to be a form of, conditioning, there is no doubt
that it is a phenomenon deserving special attention,
not only because it is of great interest to ontogenetic
studies of animal behavior but also because of its im-
plications for human developmental psychology and

4. The Modern View of Imprinting. Numerous
post-Lorenz laboratory studies of imprinting have
shown that its characteristics are not as clear-cut as
was at first thought. Nevertheless, the growth of
specific attachments in very young animals (attach-
ments which are acquired through exposure to sensory
stimulation rather than resulting from reward training)
is a common occurrence, and a very influential one,
in the development of behavior. Furthermore, there
is some evidence that imprinting is an important aspect
of early learning not only in birds but also in precocial
mammals (that is, those born in a relatively mature
state, such as guinea-pigs, sheep, horses, etc.). It may
well be—but this is still somewhat controversial—that
imprinting also plays an important part in the social-
ization of altricial species (that is, those that are rather
immature when born, e.g., dogs or monkeys). If so, then
it is not impossible that the human infant's tie to its
mother, and later the child's social behavior, depend
in some measure on the development of attachments
attained in an imprinting-like manner rather than con-
ditioned by association with physiological rewards.

In his 1935 paper in German, “The Companion in
the Bird's World,” Lorenz drew attention to certain
analogies in human behavior to the occurrence of
imprinting to, or with, inappropriate objects; he had
in mind human ways of acting which, as he put it,
“appear in the form of pathological fixations on the
object of an instinct.” This view fits in with, if it does
not actually refer to, Freud's conception of the
aetiology of many neurotic symptoms; and it ties up
with Freud's account of psychosexual phases of child
development, whereby in certain circumstances, emo-
tional development is said to be arrested and fixated
at one or another of the early psychosexual stages. Such
developmental fixations could possibly include inap-
propriate object-attachments; and these could perhaps
account for some of the well-known sexual deviations.

Learning early in life has always been of great inter-
est to all concerned with child-rearing methods, with
training, with indoctrination, and education in every
sense. More recently, early learning has become the


object of systematic research by students of animal
behavior and by child-development psychologists. The
idea of imprinting, as a special type of early learning,
was inherent—in an embryonic form—in the philoso-
phy of mind represented by the empiricist school of
thought. Later, as a result of observations of the be-
havior of young animals, the idea has reappeared in
a new guise. The study of animals has given fresh vigor
to the concept of imprinting; so much so, that this idea
is making a considerable impact upon modern human
psychology. Thus, the interest in sensory impressions
on the mind has largely given way to one in specific
imprinted attachments and in fixated modes of behav-
ior. The idea of imprinting needs now to be further
developed and refined to take full account of the new
experimental findings which are being continually re-
ported. Even so, the reborn idea of imprinting has been
useful in providing a mental picture of certain learning
situations and, above all, in giving a new direction and
purpose to current research efforts in the field and


More information on Gassendi and Locke may be found
in R. I. Aaron, John Locke (London, 1937). Some original
sources to be consulted are J. J. Rousseau, Émile, or On
(English edition, London, 1763), and Charles
Darwin, “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,” Mind, 11
(1877), 286-94. Spalding's paper, “Instinct, with Original
Observations on Young Animals,” published originally in
1873, was reprinted in Animal Behavior, 2 (1954), 2-11.
Other references are: William James, Principles of Psychol-
2 vols. (New York, 1890); Robert Thomson, The Pelican
History of Psychology
(London, 1968); Konrad Lorenz, “The
Companion in the Bird's World” (in English), Auk, 54 (1937),
245-73; W. Kessen, The Child (New York, 1965); W. Sluckin,
Imprinting & Early Learning (London, 1964; Chicago, 1965).


[See also Behaviorism; Education; Evolutionism.]