Doves, Hawks and other animals — The Daily PPILL #42

The ChannelMeister - Huba Rostonics
The Daily PPILL
Published in
5 min readApr 5, 2022


Doves, Hawks and other animals — The Daily PPILL #42

I have always been fascinated by Game Theory.

I haven’t been able to practice it that much, because -while you would argue that it could be used everywhere- the scenarios in life where it is possible to take a step back and theorize, are few. The theoretical aspects of it are also complicated enough sometimes and make my head spin. But I still love it and I think that understanding game theory can be, if not of immediate advantage, at least a reasoning platform for many daily issues.

This post is longer than my usual daily post, but I did not want to shortchange it. So instead of writing a short post, let’s try this: I wrote a longer post, with a short summary of the idea upfront. Here is the summary:

The mathematician John Maynard Smith conducted a number of thought experiments, simulating them on a computer. In those experiments, he defined different “personalities”, with different aggression profiles. He came up with Doves, Hawks, Bullies, Retaliators and Prober-Retaliators.

What he found in his experiments is that all the “extreme” personalities (either the too aggressive, or the completely submissive), are unstable, meaning that even though circumstances can be forced when one or the other predominates, eventually the situation changes to something else.

But there was only one that resulted in a stable status: when most of the population was a Retaliator. This particular personality is the personification of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” saying. They generally act peacefully and try to resolve differences without violence, that is unless they are attacked. Then they retaliate.

There is a reason why we ended up in the current state of things during and after the cold war.

END OF THE SUMMARY. If you are interested in the details, and perhaps the moral of the story, keep reading.

I am currently listening to the audio version of Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”, a book about evolution, and when possible, taking notes on the e-book version. The premise of the book is that genes want to survive and thrive, and everything that happens around them, in their so-called “survival machines” (that includes us), serves that purpose.

But I am not getting into the details of evolution in this article. I just thought that a particular passage of the book can perhaps be of use for all of us in understanding current events, and I offer it in that way. If you please, read through this and draw your own conclusions.

In the book, Dawkins describes a hypothetical experiment drawn up by Maynard Smith. The experiment is described as follows:

“Any individual of our hypothetical population is classified as a Hawk or a Dove. Hawks always fight as hard and as unrestrainedly as they can, retreating only when seriously injured. Doves merely threaten in a dignified conventional way, never hurting anybody. If a hawk fights a dove the dove quickly runs away, and so does not get hurt. If a hawk fights a hawk they go on until one of them is seriously injured or dead. If a dove meets a dove nobody gets hurt; they go on posturing at each other for a long time until one of them tires or decides not to bother any more, and therefore backs down. “

Furthermore, they add a few other “personalities”:

“A more complex strategy is called Retaliator.

A retaliator plays like a dove at the beginning of every fight. If his opponent attacks him, however, he retaliates. In other words, a retaliator behaves like a hawk when he is attacked by a hawk, and like a dove when he meets a dove. When he meets another retaliator he plays like a dove. A retaliator is a conditional strategist.

Another conditional strategist is called Bully.

A bully goes around behaving like a hawk until somebody hits back. Then he immediately runs away.

An yet one more:

“another conditional strategist is Prober-retaliator.

A prober-retaliator is basically like a retaliator, but he occasionally tries a brief experimental escalation of the contest. He persists in this hawk-like behaviour if his opponent does not fight back. If, on the other hand, his opponent does fight back he reverts to conventional threatening like a dove. If he is attacked, he
retaliates just like an ordinary retaliator.”

Are we good? So we got Dove, the pacifist posturer; the Hawk, the one who’s always looking for a fight; the Retaliator, who is usually a good guy, until you cross him; and then the Bully, who is just abusing and threatening everybody until meets someone who’s the real deal and he retreats. The prober-retaliator is almost just like a Retaliator that goes Bully sometimes.

There are three important aspects as well that factor into the experiment, and these are:

  • No individual can tell beforehand -that is, before engaging in a fight- what kind of opponent do they face.
  • No individual can remember previous fights, so fighting an opponent just to uncover them won’t work, because there is no way to use that information again.
  • Finally, as a matter of convenience and simplification, all individuals are equally strong.

Now, when it becomes really interesting is when they put all these in a computer simulator and let it run. Here is what they observe:

“If all the five strategies I have mentioned are turned loose upon one another in a computer simulation, only one of them, retaliator, emerges as evolutionarily stable. Prober-retaliator is nearly stable. Dove is not stable, because a population of doves would be invaded by hawks and bullies. Hawk is not stable, because a population of hawks would be invaded by doves and bullies. Bully is not stable, because a population of bullies would be invaded by hawks. In a population of retaliators, no other strategy would invade, since there is no other strategy that does better than retaliator itself. However, dove does equally well in a population of retaliators. This means that, other things being equal, the numbers of doves could slowly drift upwards.”

So Hawks face a problem. While as an individual, they may be in a good position for survival, as a group, it is a terrible strategy. Remember that “if a hawk fights a hawk they go on until one of them is seriously injured or dead”, so potentially, after having fought all the doves, a population of only Hawks would decrease geometrically, until only one is left.

An interesting and somewhat counterintuitive outcome is the survival of the doves in a population of retaliators. Since all retaliators behave at first like doves in a confrontation, no individual can tell at first whether they are facing a dove or a retaliator. Under this condition, doves can easily disguise themselves.

Obviously, these are very simplified models and they assume that every individual acts on their own behalf, well, individually. There are no alliances. Also, the fact that in reality, some individuals can be way stronger than others, radically changes some of the dynamics.

In any case, for us, and considering the current events, every dove you see out there may be really a retaliator, and a Hawk, may just be a bully.

As published on The ChannelMeister



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