Discovery Science: Behavioral Patterns – Learned behavior

Earth Science: Behavioral Patterns – Learned behavior

Learning is the capacity to store individual experiences in long-term memory and use them to adapt to new situations. The ability to learn significantly enhances an individual’s chances of survival in a changing environment. Learned behavior includes imprinting and conditioning.

Imprinting is a basic and necessary learning experience in early childhood and in young animals. It is generally irreversible, and occurs only once during an individual’s development, during a short window of time called the critical period-in birds, for instance, this is shortly after hatching.

Imprinting leads to a specific reaction in the individual, such as a gosling following its mother. In object imprinting, an object or another animal provides the stimulus for a particular reaction, while in behavioral imprinting, it is a pattern of action.


Conditioning is a learning process in which certain behaviors are associated with specific stimuli. For instance, a puff of air (an unconditioned stimulus) naturally stimulates the eyeblink reflex (an unconditioned response). When a musical tone is played (a neutral stimulus), there is no eyeblink. However, if this neutral stimulus always comes just before a puff of air, after a while the musical tone alone will induce the eye-blink reflex. This new stimulus is called a conditioned stimulus, and the reaction to it a conditioned response. Learning by developing conditioned responses is known as classical conditioning.

A learning process that brings together two ordinarily independent factors is called conditioned association. For example, many birds over the course of their lives learn that certain materials are especially favorable for nest building, and so search for these. Thus, based on positive experiences, a previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke an associated response. Animals also learn from negative experiences. If an originally neutral stimulus is linked to a frightening or painful occurrence, the animal will begin to avoid that stimulus; this is called conditioned aversion.

If an animal is always rewarded immediately after exhibiting a particular behavior, the behavior becomes associated with the reward; the behavior acts as a tool through which the desired result is achieved. This is referred to as operant conditioning.


The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), who won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work on comparative behavior, is considered one of the founders of ethology.

The concept of imprinting is linked to Lorenz’s name as he was able to show that goslings will accept anything as their mother as long as it is nearby shortly after they hatch and makes the right sounds.


IMITATION Primates learn through imitation. Young chimps eat the same fruits as their mothers, who reinforce this by offering or taking away certain foods.