Toward an evolutionary definition of cheating

Evolution. 2014 Feb;68(2):318-31. doi: 10.1111/evo.12266. Epub 2013 Oct 16.


The term "cheating" is used in the evolutionary and ecological literature to describe a wide range of exploitative or deceitful traits. Although many find this a useful short hand, others have suggested that it implies cognitive intent in a misleading way, and is used inconsistently. We provide a formal justification of the use of the term "cheat" from the perspective of an individual as a maximizing agent. We provide a definition for cheating that can be applied widely, and show that cheats can be broadly classified on the basis of four distinctions: (i) whether cooperation is an option; (ii) whether deception is involved; (iii) whether members of the same or different species are cheated; and (iv) whether the cheat is facultative or obligate. Our formal definition and classification provide a framework that allow us to resolve and clarify a number of issues, regarding the detection and evolutionary consequences of cheating, as well as illuminating common principles and similarities in the underlying selection pressures.

Keywords: Cheat; cooperation; deception; exploitation; intentional language; social evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Deception*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Selection, Genetic