Receiver psychology and the evolution of multicomponent signals

Anim Behav. 1999 Nov;58(5):921-931. doi: 10.1006/anbe.1999.1242.


Many animals produce and respond to signals made up of multiple components. For example, many avian sexual displays are highly extravagant combinations of visual and acoustic elements, and are described as being 'multicomponent'. One possible reason for the evolution of such complex signals is that they provide more reliable information for receivers. However, receivers also influence signal evolution in another important way, by how they perceive and process signals: signallers will be selected to produce signals that are more easily received. The potential role of receiver psychology in the evolution of multicomponent signals has not previously been considered; in this review I present psychological results that support the notion that two components are better received than one alone. Detection can be improved by producing two components together, thus reducing the reaction time, increasing the probability of detection and lowering the intensity at which detection occurs. Discriminability of multicomponent stimuli is also made easier through better recognition, faster discrimination learning and multidimensional generalization. In addition, multicomponent stimuli also improve associative learning. I show that multicomponency does indeed improve signal reception in receivers, although the benefits of producing components in two sensory modalities (bimodal multicomponent signals) may be larger and more robust than producing them in just one (unimodal multicomponent signals). This highlights the need for consideration of receiver psychology in the evolution of multicomponent signals, and suggests that where signal components do not appear to be informative, they may instead be performing an important psychological function. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.