How Is Game Theory Used in Evolution?


Vincent White

Game theory is a field of study that has become increasingly relevant in many areas of research, including biology and economics. Biologists have been particularly interested in using game theory to understand the evolution of behavior. In this article, we’ll explore how game theory has been applied in the study of evolution.

What is Game Theory?

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that studies decision-making in situations where two or more individuals or groups are involved. It is concerned with understanding how people or animals make decisions in these situations and how their decisions affect each other.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

One of the most famous examples of game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are arrested for a crime and put into separate cells. They are given the opportunity to either cooperate with each other by remaining silent, or defect by confessing to the crime and implicating their partner.

If both suspects remain silent, they will each receive a light sentence. However, if one suspect defects and implicates their partner while the other remains silent, the defector will go free while their partner receives a harsh sentence. If both suspects defect and implicate each other, they will both receive moderate sentences.

This scenario illustrates how individual decisions can have different outcomes depending on what others do – a key concept in game theory.

Evolutionary Game Theory

Evolutionary game theory applies these same principles to understand how animal behavior evolves over time. In this context, animals can be thought of as players in a game where they make decisions that affect their survival and reproductive success.

For example, consider a population of birds that feed on insects found on leaves. Some birds may choose to search for insects alone while others may search in pairs. If searching alone is more efficient at finding insects but searching in pairs provides protection against predators, then the population may evolve a mixture of both strategies.

The Hawk-Dove Game

Another classic example of game theory in biology is the hawk-dove game. In this scenario, two animals are competing for a resource, such as food or territory. They can either fight for the resource (a hawk move) or back down and avoid conflict (a dove move).

If both animals choose hawk moves, they will engage in a fight and each receive a negative payoff. If both animals choose dove moves, they will each receive a positive payoff. However, if one animal chooses hawk and the other chooses dove, the hawk will receive the resource while the dove receives nothing.

This scenario illustrates how animal behavior can be influenced by the behavior of others in their population. If there are many hawks in a population, it may be advantageous for some individuals to switch to the dove strategy to avoid conflict.


Game theory provides a powerful framework for understanding how individual decisions can affect outcomes in group settings. Evolutionary game theory has been particularly useful in understanding how animal behavior evolves over time.

By applying game theory concepts to biological systems, researchers have gained insights into why certain behaviors persist and how populations can evolve towards stable strategies. As we continue to explore these ideas, we may gain even more insights into how complex social systems evolve and function.