Modeling nonhuman conventions: The behavioral ecology of arbitrary action

David W. Stephens, Virginia K. Heinen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


This paper considers the relevance of so-called "Lewisian conventions" to the study of nonhuman animals. Conventions arise in coordination games with multiple equilibria, and the apparent arbitrariness of conventions occurs when processes outside the game itself determine which of several equilibria is ultimately chosen. Well-understood human conventions, such as driving on the left or right, can be seen as equilibria within a game. We consider possible nonhuman conventions, including traditional group locations, dominance, territoriality, and conventional signaling, that can be similarly described. We argue that conventions have been ignored in the study of animal behavior because they have been misunderstood. Yet, students of animal behavior are well prepared to understand and analyze conventions because the basic tools of game theory are already well established in our field. In addition, we argue that a research program exploring nonhuman conventions could greatly enrich the study of animal behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)598-608
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 9 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the University of Dissertation Fellowship (to V.K.H).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2017.


  • conventions, coordination, game theory, multiple equilibria


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