How Does Game Theory Relate to Animal Behavior?


Diego Sanchez

Game theory is a mathematical framework that helps to understand the behavior of people, animals, and other living organisms in strategic situations. It is used to analyze decision-making processes and interactions between individuals with conflicting interests. The principles of game theory have proven to be useful in understanding animal behavior as well.

The Basics of Game Theory

Game theory is based on the idea that individuals make decisions based on their own self-interest. It assumes that each individual has a set of possible choices, and each choice leads to a specific outcome. These outcomes are then assigned a value or payoff that represents the individual’s preference.

A game consists of players, actions, and payoffs. Players are the individuals involved in the game, actions are the possible choices they can make, and payoffs are the outcomes associated with each action. Each player tries to maximize their payoff while anticipating the actions of others.

Examples of Game Theory in Animal Behavior

Animal behavior can be modeled using game theory by analyzing how animals interact with each other in certain situations. For example, consider two male deer competing for mating rights with a female deer.

The two males can either fight or retreat from each other. If they fight, there is a chance one or both could get injured or killed, but if they retreat from each other, neither gets to mate.

This situation can be modeled as a game called “Hawk-Dove” where fighting is represented as a hawk strategy and retreating as a dove strategy. The payoffs for this game depend on which strategy is played by both animals.

If both play hawk (fight), there is a chance that both will get injured and receive a negative payoff. If one plays hawk and the other plays dove (retreat), then the hawk player will receive a higher payoff (mating rights) than the dove player (no mating). If both play dove (retreat), then both receive a lower payoff (no mating).

Evolutionary Stable Strategies

In game theory, an evolutionary stable strategy (ESS) is a strategy that, once established, cannot be invaded by any other alternative strategy. In the Hawk-Dove game, the ESS is a mixed strategy where each animal plays hawk with a probability of 50% and dove with a probability of 50%.

This means that in a population of male deer competing for mating rights, half will fight and half will retreat from each other. This creates an equilibrium where no individual can improve their payoff by changing their strategy.


Game theory provides a useful framework for modeling animal behavior. It helps to understand how animals make strategic decisions and how they interact with each other in different situations. By analyzing the payoffs associated with different strategies, we can predict which strategies will be evolutionarily stable in a given population.

The principles of game theory have been used to study animal behavior in many contexts, such as predator-prey interactions, mate selection, and cooperation among group members. By applying game theory to animal behavior research, we can gain insights into the complex dynamics of natural systems and appreciate the intricacies of life on earth.