Cheating and punishment in cooperative animal societies

Christina Pauline Riehl, Megan E. Frederickson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Cheaters—genotypes that gain a selective advantage by taking the benefits of the social contributions of others while avoiding the costs of cooperating—are thought to pose a major threat to the evolutionary stability of cooperative societies. In order for cheaters to undermine cooperation, cheating must be an adaptive strategy: cheaters must have higher fitness than cooperators, and their behaviour must reduce the fitness of their cooperative partners. It is frequently suggested that cheating is not adaptive because cooperators have evolved mechanisms to punish these behaviours, thereby reducing the fitness of selfish individuals. However, a simpler hypothesis is that such societies arise precisely because cooperative strategies have been favoured over selfish ones—hence, behaviours that have been interpreted as ‘cheating’ may not actually result in increased fitness, even when they go unpunished. Here, we review the empirical evidence for cheating behaviours in animal societies, including cooperatively breeding vertebrates and social insects, and we ask whether such behaviours are primarily limited by punishment. Our review suggests that both cheating and punishment are probably rarer than often supposed. Uncooperative individuals typically have lower, not higher, fitness than cooperators; and when evidence suggests that cheating may be adaptive, it is often limited by frequency-dependent selection rather than by punishment. When apparently punitive behaviours do occur, it remains an open question whether they evolved in order to limit cheating, or whether they arose before the evolution of cooperation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1687
StatePublished - Feb 5 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Cheating
  • Cooperation
  • Eusociality
  • Policing
  • Punishment
  • Reciprocity


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