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Why Animals Lie: How Dishonesty and Belief Can Coexist in a Signaling System

Jonathan T. Rowell, Stephen P. Ellner and H. Kern Reeve
The American Naturalist
Vol. 168, No. 6 (December 2006), pp. E180-E204
DOI: 10.1086/508809
Stable URL:
Page Count: 25
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Abstract: We develop and apply a simple model for animal communication in which signalers can use a nontrivial frequency of deception without causing listeners to completely lose belief. This common feature of animal communication has been difficult to explain as a stable adaptive outcome of the options and payoffs intrinsic to signaling interactions. Our theory is based on two realistic assumptions. (1) Signals are “overheard” by several listeners or listener types with different payoffs. The signaler may then benefit from using incomplete honesty to elicit different responses from different listener types, such as attracting potential mates while simultaneously deterring competitors. (2) Signaler and listener strategies change dynamically in response to current payoffs for different behaviors. The dynamic equations can be interpreted as describing learning and behavior change by individuals or evolution across generations. We explain how our dynamic model differs from other solution concepts from classical and evolutionary game theory and how it relates to general models for frequency‐dependent phenotype dynamics. We illustrate the theory with several applications where deceptive signaling occurs readily in our framework, including bluffing competitors for potential mates or territories. We suggest future theoretical directions to make the models more general and propose some possible experimental tests.

Notes and References

This item contains 60 references.

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