The Evolution of Ownership Acceptance


Respect for ownership is widespread in the animal kingdom. Thus, the first individuals to find resources are frequently unchallenged by potential competitors and tend to win contests when disputes arise. Game theory has shown that ownership acceptance can arise as an arbitrary convention to avoid costly disputes, even when there are small differences in the value of the resource to individuals or in their fighting ability. However, if possessors make significant non‐transferable investments in resources, then possessors will also be more motivated to retain them. Similarly, if fighting ability affects fighting outcome and can be reliably assessed, then alternative conventions in which poor fighters concede to good fighters are also favoured. Both sources of asymmetry can ultimately reinforce the ownership advantage and broaden the conditions under which owners remain unchallenged. So, respect for possession readily evolves to avoid costly disputes and is especially favoured when possession reflects an underlying asymmetry.

Key Concepts

  • Respect for ownership is widespread in the animal kingdom and is maintained without third‐party enforcement.
  • Classical game‐theory models successfully explain how respect for ownership can evolve as a convention to avoid costly disputes.
  • Differences in fighting ability and value of resource between individuals help explain why respect for property is typically conditional, such that, for example, larger intruders will occasionally challenge owners.
  • If owners tend to be better fighters or value the resource more highly, then this asymmetry will further promote recognition of ownership, taking it above and beyond a convention.
  • As might be expected, the most intense fights between individuals arise when conventional solutions break down – for example, when both individuals believe themselves to be the rightful owner.
  • Other aspects of ownership, such as inheritance and/or division of property, are amenable to game theoretical analysis, but they have seen much less work.

Keywords: game theory; evolutionary stable strategy; ownership; private property; animal contests; territoriality

Figure 1. A pair of male variable field crickets (Gryllus lineaticeps) engaged in physical fighting. Male field crickets defend burrows from which they call to attract females and will vigorously expel any intruding male. When the intruder challenges the resident, males tend to proceed through a stereotypical series of aggressive behaviours, with males ultimately head‐butting and grappling one another with their mouthparts. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Kevin Judge.
Figure 2. The ESSs (evolutionarily stable strategies) in the Hawk–Dove game with complete information in which individuals can have either lower or higher RHP (resource holding potential) than their opponent, and interacting individuals are in the role of occupier and intruder (decided at random). When RHP differences strongly influence contest outcome (x ≫ 0.5), then individuals with lower RHP should yield the contested resource to individuals with higher RHP (and individuals with higher RHP should be prepared to fight), i.e. the Assessor strategy should prevail. When fighting is relatively cheap (γ = C/V < 1) and RHP differences do not strongly influence contest outcome (x ≈ 0.5), then it is advantageous to fight for any valuable resource (obligate Hawk is the ESS). Conversely, when fighting is expensive (γ > 1) and (x ≈ 0.5), then a number of conventions can evolve to avoid the costly dispute namely Bourgeois (B, respect ownership), Assessor and their ‘paradoxical’ mirror images namely anti‐Bourgeois (X, respect intruder) and anti‐Assessor (Y, respect individual with lower RHP). The curve that separates the lighter from the darker shading has equation x = max(1, γ)/(1+ γ). Graph redrawn from Hammerstein 1981 © Elsevier.
Figure 3. The ESSs in the classical (intrusive) Hawk–Dove model when owners have a particular fighting advantage (μ) and γ = V/C is the cost–benefit ratio (as in Figure). When the owner is highly likely to win (i.e. there is a correlated asymmetry in favour of the owner), then respect for ownership (Bourgeois behaviour, B) is likely to evolve. However, even when the owner has little or no fighting advantage, then Bourgeois behaviour (or its mirror image anti‐Bourgeois, X) can still evolve as a dispute‐avoiding conventional ESS if fighting is particularly costly (γ > 1).
Figure 4. The ESSs in the classical (intrusive) Hawk–Dove model when owners have a particular fighting advantage (μ), the cost–benefit ratio (V/C) is γ and intruders mistakenly consider themselves as occupiers with probability θ. Introducing confusion over ownership broadens the conditions under which Bourgeois is the sole ESS. The specific thresholds are γ1 = (1 + θ)/(1 − θ) and γ2 = (1 + θ)/2θ. The figure is drawn for 0 < θ < 1/3. Note that γ1 → 1 and γ2 → ∞, as θ → 0 (compare with Figure, in which θ = 0) and that γ1 < γ2 whenever θ < 1/3.


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Sherratt, Thomas N, and Mesterton‐Gibbons, Mike(Sep 2017) The Evolution of Ownership Acceptance. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027503]