Find out more in this summary of an intriguing article from *The Book of Life.
Konrad Lorenz, b. 1903, d. 1989, was an Austrian ornithologist and zoologist who spent most of his adult life in marshes and wetlands studying the behaviour of greylag geese and jackdaws.
He observed how these birds seem to develop a strong attachment to their mother from within a few minutes of hatching, watching and following her intently.
This led him to develop ‘the principle of imprinting’, a theory about the way in which nidifugous birds (i.e. birds that are born covered in down, have their eyes open and can walk and follow their parents) grow to develop an instinctive and rapid bond with maternal figures.
Lorenz discovered, however, that birds like greylag geese and jackdaws don’t necessarily follow their real mother; instead they develop an attachment to the first moving object they see within hours of hatching. There’s no discrimination: they might attach to a kindly maternal bird, but it could also be a human, a bicycle or any other random object.
Lorenz published his most famous book, “The Companion in the Environment” in 1935 and even though it focussed on birds, psychologists saw its relevance to human behaviour. Just like young birds, young humans become attached to the adults close to them, latching on to who ever is around. Rather than identifying an ideal care-giver who will nurture them, they can sometimes attach to people who are definitely wrong for them – neglectful, belittling, even cruel adults who are not at all relevant to their needs. This early imprinting can lead to misguided, unhelpful ideas about who should give us care and nurture, later informing the type of people we choose as lovers when we’re older.
It’s puzzling that we can fall in love with someone we know is not going to be good for us. Instead of hating ourselves for that, however, we should recognise that this “wrong” person mirrors an earlier inappropriate attachment figure. Recognise too that while the workings of imprinting are powerful, we are not helpless young birds: we are free to go and find someone worthy of us who will give us the generous and life-enhancing love we should have known from the first.
*The Book of Life” is sponsored by The School of Life, a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence.