Receiver psychology turns 20: Is it time for a broader approach?

Cory T. Miller, Mark A. Bee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Twenty years ago, a new conceptual paradigm known as 'receiver psychology' was introduced to explain the evolution of animal communication systems. This paradigm advanced the idea that psychological processes in the receiver's nervous system influence a signal's detectability, discriminability and memorability, and thereby serve as powerful sources of selection shaping signal design. While advancing our understanding of signal diversity, more recent studies make clear that receiver psychology, as a paradigm, has been structured too narrowly and does not incorporate many of the perceptual and cognitive processes of signal reception that operate between sensory transduction and a receiver's response. Consequently, the past two decades of research on receiver psychology have emphasized considerations of signal evolution but failed to ask key questions about the mechanisms of signal reception and their evolution. The primary aim of this essay is to advocate for a broader receiver psychology paradigm that more explicitly includes a research focus on receivers' psychological landscapes. We review recent experimental studies of hearing and sound communication to illustrate how considerations of several general perceptual and cognitive processes will facilitate future research on animal signalling systems. We also emphasize how a rigorous comparative approach to receiver psychology is critical to explicating the full range of perceptual and cognitive processes involved in receiving and responding to signals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-343
Number of pages13
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dorothy Cheney, Tim Gentner, Carl Gerhardt, Eileen Hebets, Robert Seyfarth, Dave Stephens, members of the Miller and Bee labs, and two anonymous referees for critical comments on previous versions of the manuscript, and Teresa Nick for the recording of zebra finch song depicted in Figs 1 and 4 . During the preparation of this manuscript, C.T.M. was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD, R00-DC009007 ) and M.A.B. was supported by grants from the NIDCD ( R03-DC008396 and R01-DC009582 ), the National Science Foundation ( INT-0107304 and IOS-0842759 ), the International Graduate School for Neurosensory Science and Systems (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft GK 591), the University of Minnesota Graduate School , and the McKnight Foundation .


  • Acoustic communication
  • Auditory object formation
  • Auditory scene analysis
  • Decision making
  • Receiver psychology
  • Social categorization
  • Source segregation
  • Temporal organization


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