Konrad Lorenz: Pioneer of Ethology and Imprinting Psychology

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: March 15, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
Konrad Lorenz – PSYCULATOR
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Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist, was a pioneer in the study of animal behavior. He is best known for his research on the principle of attachment, or imprinting, through which a bond is formed between a newborn animal and its caregiver.

Lorenz’s work on the development of such instinctive behavior in animals was influential in modern ethology, also extending its scientific utility to the field of psychology helping to better understand the pair-bonding processes.

Fast Facts: Konrad Lorenz

  • Birth: November 7, 1903
  • Death: February 27, 1989
  • Nationality: Austrian
  • Field: Ethology, Zoology, Psychology
  • Nobel Prize: Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 (shared with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch)
  • Known for: Imprinting, Critical Period, Fixed Action Patterns
  • Founding Figure: Ethology, the study of animal behavior in natural environments
  • Influence: Improved our understanding of behavior, challenging behaviorist perspectives and influencing fields beyond ethology, including psychology and biology.

Early Life

Konrad Lorenz was born in 1903, in Vienna, Austria, into a family with a strong scientific and academic background. His father, Adolf Lorenz, was a prominent surgeon, and his mother, Emma, had a keen interest in literature. Growing up in this intellectually stimulating environment likely influenced Lorenz's later academic and scientific pursuits.

Lorenz pursued his education in Vienna, studying medicine at the University of Vienna. He obtained his doctorate in medicine in 1928, laying the foundation for his later work in the field of ethology and zoology.

Lorenz's early life saw the development of a keen interest in the natural sciences, particularly in observing and understanding animal behavior. This fascination with the natural world set the stage for his later groundbreaking work in ethology.

His early adulthood was marked by his service in the Austrian army during World War I. His experiences during the war influenced his later reflections on the innate behaviors and instincts of animals, as he drew parallels between human and animal responses to conflict.

Then later, Lorenz continued his intellectual career with his doctoral research focusing on the anatomy and physiology of the thymus gland. While this work was foundational for his medical career, it also paved the way for his later shift into ethology, where he would explore the behaviors of animals in their natural habitats.

Lorenz's experiences during his early years, including his family background, education, and military service, played a role in shaping his perspectives and fostering a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of the natural world. Konrad Lorenz's work on imprinting, particularly with birds, was groundbreaking and had significant implications for the understanding of early social behavior in animals.

Imprinting Process

Imprinting is a form of rapid learning that occurs during a critical period early in an animal's life, where they form strong attachments to the first moving object they encounter, often their caregiver.

Konrad Lorenz's work on imprinting, particularly with birds, was groundbreaking and had significant implications for the understanding of early social behavior in animals. The following concepts as indispensable elements in the process of imprinting.

Critical Period

Lorenz found that imprinting is most effective during a specific critical period, which is shortly after hatching. The young animals, particularly birds such as geese and ducks, are most receptive to forming attachments during this limited timeframe.

He demonstrated that there are specific time frames during which imprinting must occur for it to be effective, emphasizing the role of timing and sensitive periods in the development of behavior.

Caregiver Recognition

During imprinting, the young animals identify and form a strong bond with the first moving object they see, typically their parent or caregiver. This recognition is not species-specific, meaning that the imprinting process can occur with objects of different species, including humans.


Imprinting is often irreversible once it occurs.

Once the bond is established, it tends to persist throughout the animal's life. This strong attachment influences various aspects of the animal's behavior, including mating preferences and social interactions.

Other Contributions

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and Nobel laureate, made significant contributions to the field of psychology, particularly in the areas of ethology and imprinting.


Lorenz is considered one of the founding figures of ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior in their natural environments. His approach emphasized the importance of studying behavior in the context of an animal's natural habitat, contributing to a more holistic understanding of animal behavior compared to laboratory-based studies.

Fixed Action Patterns

Lorenz introduced the concept of "fixed action patterns," which are innate behaviors displayed by animals in response to specific stimuli. This idea challenged traditional behaviorist views that focused on learned behaviors, highlighting the role of innate, genetically programmed behaviors in the animal kingdom.

Instinctive Behavior

Lorenz argued for the importance of instinctive behavior in animals, countering behaviorist theories that emphasized learned behaviors through conditioning. His work highlighted the role of genetically programmed behaviors in the survival and adaptation of species.

Lorenz's contributions had a profound impact not only on the field of psychology but also on the broader understanding of animal behavior, evolution, and the intricate interplay between genetics and environment. His work laid the foundation for the development of ethology as a distinct and influential branch of behavioral science.

Lorenz: Influence on Fellow Psychologists and Psychoanalysts

Lorenz's work on imprinting had a significant impact on both psychologists and psychoanalysts, albeit with differing perspectives.


Lorenz's findings challenged the prevailing behaviorist views of his time. Behaviorism, led by figures like B.F. Skinner, focused on learned behaviors through conditioning and dismissed the importance of innate or instinctive behaviors. Lorenz's imprinting research highlighted the presence of innate, biologically programmed behaviors, challenging the behaviorist paradigm.


Lorenz's work contributed to the establishment of ethology as a distinct field within psychology. Ethologists, including Lorenz himself and Nikolaas Tinbergen, emphasized the study of behavior in natural settings and the importance of innate behaviors. This approach contrasted with laboratory-based studies and influenced the development of a more holistic understanding of animal behavior.


While Lorenz's work focused on animal behavior, its emphasis on the critical period and the significance of early experiences had indirect implications for psychoanalysts. Psychoanalysts, particularly those interested in child development (for example, Melanie Klein), found resonance in the concept of critical periods and the idea that early experiences play a crucial role in shaping behavior and relationships.


In summary, Konrad Lorenz's work on imprinting revolutionized the understanding of early social behavior in animals, challenging prevailing behaviorist views and contributing to the establishment of ethology. While his immediate impact was more pronounced in the field of animal behavior, the concepts of critical periods and the influence of early experiences found echoes in various branches of psychology, including developmental and psychoanalytic perspectives.