The ability to learn is a naturally selected adaptation that enables an individual to adjust its behavior according to the current surroundings. Some of the most basic animal behaviors, such as recognizing conspecifics or knowing where to look for food, may be acquired through a learning process known as imprinting. A widely applicable definition of imprinting is that it is a learning process that restricts preferences to a specific class of objects. It implies some sensitive period when imprinting can occur. Usually, imprinting refers to the learning of social preferences that occurs relatively early in life, and that is stable once it is established in the individual. Under natural conditions, the social parents usually serve as stimulus objects for the developing young. A further characteristic of imprinting is that it occurs without any obvious reinforcement (this point has been widely debated). Although clearly a unique learning process, imprinting shares many characteristics with associative learning.

Two kinds of imprinting have been extensively studied. Filial imprinting concerns the development of a social preference of a young animal for its parent(s). Sexual imprinting is the process by which young animals learn the characteristics of future mates. Both kinds of imprinting may also function in individual and kin recognition. In a wider context, imprinting may determine the species recognition of many animals. Imprinting may even be of importance for establishing nonsocial ecological preferences, such as for food and habitat. The timing and duration of the learning process may differ between behaviors and species. Moreover, the kinds of behavior that may be affected by imprinting may vary with the life history and ecology of the species.

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