Department of Economics and Business Economics

Strategic heuristics underlie animal dominance hierarchies and provide evidence of group-level social knowledge

Research output: Working paper/Preprint Working paperResearch


  • Elizabeth Hobson, Santa Fe Institute, University of Cincinnati, United States
  • Dan Mønster
  • Simon DeDeo, Carnegie Mellon University, Santa Fe Institute, United States
The information contained in social systems, and the part of it that animals actually possess, is a driver of the evolution of sociality, cognition, and animal culture. However, it is difficult to detect how much information individuals actually have about their social worlds. Even when information can be detected, differences in methodology make cross-species comparisons difficult. We present a new method for detecting social information in dominance hierarchies, that infers individual-level rules for aggression based on how aggression decisions are influenced by differences in social rank. We apply this method to 172 social groups across 85 species in 22 orders. By looking for heuristics that depend upon rank information, we can back-infer the types of information individuals possess about the macro-level properties of their group. Summary measures of these heuristics then place groups within a taxonomy, providing a biologically-relevant "social assay" to quantify the amount of social information and to identify consensus strategies at the group level. The majority of animal groups in our dataset (112 groups, 65%) follow a downward heuristic to structure their fights, spreading aggression relatively equally across lower-ranked opponents but 50 groups (29%) use strategies that are indicative of more detailed rank information. Strategies are not phylogenetically constrained and groups within the same species can use different strategies, indicating that the choice of heuristics may be contextual and that the structuring of aggression by social information should not be considered a fixed characteristic. Instead, individuals may be able to plastically respond to local conditions by increasing or decreasing the complexity of their strategies. Our approach provides new opportunities to study the use of social information across species and the evolution of social complexity and cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018

    Research areas

  • Animal sociality, Animal conflict, Dominance hierarchy, Heuristics, Self-organizing systems, Social Cognition, Social feedback, Social complexity

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ID: 193505143