Understanding Imprinting Psychology

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you have a "type"? Are you eager to be around people who remind you of your parents? Or do you find Macs confusing because you started on a PC? While these preferences and impulses may not initially appear to have anything in common, they all have one distinct and important thing in common: imprinting.

What is imprinting?

In psychology, imprinting is defined as "a simple yet profound and highly effective learning process that occurs during a critical period in the life of some animals." While it may immediately bring up images of ducklings running after the human they first saw upon hatching, the phenomenon can extend to many other areas of life. It can notably impact how babies are raised, both in humans and other animals.

Imprinting isn't necessarily good or bad, and we all experience it to some extent; however, it has a stronger effect on some people than it does on others. It can impact how you think, feel, and behave and, as a result, understanding how it affects you can help you lead a happy and healthy life.

It could also help you sort through some unhealthy behaviors or areas in which you feel stuck.

Imprinting in learning

Imprinting is important for raising the young, as it encourages them to follow their parents. This is referred to as "filial imprinting." For example, in the wild, animals learn to hunt while watching their parents hunt. In humans, babies learn to speak by mimicking their parents' speech. Many birds "sing" by imitating those around them. All these behaviors, in turn, allow animals to become in touch with their instincts as an intrinsic form of learning. 

Thanks to imprinting’s impartial nature, one's biological parents are not necessary for learning. For example, when birds are orphaned, they can learn to fly by imprinting on microlight aircraft, which can guide them in the necessary migration patterns. Of course, the aircraft is not their parent or even a living being, but the same natural tendency to follow occurs. Sometimes animals can even come to believe they are a different species. A cat might influence a dog if its mother has died, or a duck might influence a human who has raised them.

Critical periods for imprinting

An integral characteristic of imprinting is that it occurs at a specific early point in life, usually beginning at birth. This period varies between species, ranging from within a day or so after birth to almost the entire first few years of their life. Once someone leaves this time frame, however, they will no longer be able to imprint.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
What does my imprinting say about me?

Learning can still occur, but it won't have the same ease and sense of "instinct." For example, humans can learn different languages as they get older, but none will come as easily as those they learned in their most formative period. Imprinting is also considered to be irreversible, or unforgettable, unlike things that are learned later. 

Critical periods in humans can occur at various points in one's life for different learned behaviors. For example, while language generally comes most easily before the age of five, the critical period for certain social skills is around the age of puberty.

Baby duck syndrome

Baby ducks and geese tend to imprint on the first moving animal or thing they see, typically within the critical period of the first 36 hours of their lives, which can lead to them following this animal or thing for the rest of their adolescence. So, a duckling may imprint on and learn from its mother, or it may follow one of its brothers or sisters. This is why ducks walk in a line; they are all leading one another. 

In certain circumstances, pairs of human shoes present at the time of the duckling's birth can even be imprinted on, and the duckling will then attempt to follow the shoes. The imprinted object becomes a source of great comfort—essentially, the imprinted person or item becomes what the duckling trusts enough to follow.

Given this, psychologists have coined the term "baby duck syndrome" to describe when humans imprint on inanimate objects and deem them the best of their kind. This is regardless of anything better being available because it was the first thing they encountered. This is often applied to computer systems, notably Mac versus PC. Whichever operating system is learned first is most likely the one that the user will consider superior and is more likely to return to it in the future.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

How imprinting changes the brain

There appears to be a chemical component to imprinting. Scientists have been able to find that the intermediate and medial parts of the hyperstriatum ventral (the IMHV) are involved, taking place on both sides of the brain. Researchers believe this is where information regarding imprinting is stored.

In birds and reptiles, there is a part of the brain called the dorsal ventricular ridge, or DVR, which is where they may store this information. The theory was tested by removing these parts of the brain in chicks and finding that, as a result, they were no longer able to imprint.

Sexual imprinting

For some, the term “imprinting” came into their sphere of awareness through social phenomena like the Twilight series or the television show My Strange Addiction. However, in psychology, sexual imprinting is its own distinct process.

When an animal or human is raised, they tend to consider certain attributes of those who raised them important, making these same attributes attractive qualities in a mate. To test this theory, an experiment was set up where zebra finches had their beaks painted with colored nail polish. When mating, their offspring would then seek those with a beak of a similar shade.

This can sometimes result in certain animals being attracted to humans or other animals if they raised them instead of their species. For example, a giant panda in the London Zoo was raised by zookeepers and would present herself sexually to them, but when she was brought to mate with a male, she refused.

In humans, this may result in having a "type." Often, people desire the characteristics of a parent. For example, studies have shown that when daughters have fathers that are particularly older, they are more likely to seek an older man. When sons come from parents of different races, they are more likely to seek a partner of the same race as their mother. However, sometimes people will actively seek those who look and act nothing like their parents. This inadvertently creates a type in itself. Namely, people who are different from those they grew up with. This can also occur with inanimate objects if it originates during the crucial stage. One of the most common cases is when people fetishize high heels.

This is often referred to as the Westermarck effect. Yet, if siblings had been separated during this crucial time and met later in life, they might find one another particularly appealing. Steven Pinker suggests that Freud was mistakenly projecting his unique, personal-psychological disposition onto society as a whole rather than viewing psychological insight from a large-scale perspective.

Seeking guidance about imprinting in therapy

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
What does my imprinting say about me?

Imprinting isn't usually dangerous or harmful, though it can sometimes be awkward. If you believe it is behind a quality you don't like about yourself, talking to an in-person or online therapist can give you understanding and emotional support. Under the guidance of a therapist, you will also develop strategies to promote positive change.

Convenient and affordable professional therapists and counselors are available online through BetterHelp. Online therapy can seem strange to people who are used to more traditional in-person therapy, but clients report immensely positive experiences. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

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Imprinting isn't a well-known psychological concept, so just discovering it can be enough to change your outlook. Otherwise, further tools to learn about your own behaviors and how to make them healthier are available. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it is an associative learning experience that all humans and animals experience at some point in their lives. If you feel that it is at the root of pain, frustration, or declining mental health, do not hesitate to reach out for help today.
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