Aggression heuristics underlie animal dominance hierarchies and provide evidence of group-level social information

Elizabeth Hobson, Dan Mønster, Simon DeDeo

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Members of a social species need to make appropriate decisions about who, how, and when to interact with others in their group. However, it has been difficult for researchers to detect the inputs to these decisions and, in particular, how much information individuals actually have about their social context. We present a method that can serve as a social assay to quantify how patterns of aggression depend upon information about the ranks of individuals within social dominance hierarchies. Applied to existing data on aggression in 172 social groups across 85 species in 23 orders, it reveals three main patterns of rank-dependent social dominance: the downward heuristic (aggress uniformly against lower-ranked opponents), close competitors (aggress against opponents ranked slightly below self), and bullying (aggress against opponents ranked much lower than self). The majority of the groups (133 groups, 77%) follow a downward heuristic, but a significant minority (38 groups, 22%) show more complex social dominance patterns (close competitors or bullying) consistent with higher levels of social information use. These patterns are not phylogenetically constrained and different groups within the same species can use different patterns, suggesting that heuristic use may depend on context and the structuring of aggression by social information should not be considered a fixed characteristic of a species. Our approach provides opportunities to study the use of social information within and across species and the evolution of social complexity and cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2022912118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • Animal conflict
  • Animal sociality
  • Dominance hierarchy
  • Self-organizing systems
  • Self-organizing system
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Animals
  • Aggression
  • Social Behavior
  • Heuristics
  • Social Dominance


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