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Investigating decision-making in multi-party contests

Project Description

Conflict is rife within animal societies, including our own, with individuals competing for social rank or resources such as food, territory or mates. The evolution of competitive strategies has been the focus of much theoretical and empirical work, which has yielded important insights into both the decision rules that individuals use in contests and the role of the environment (including the social environment) in shaping competitive strategies. However, almost all such studies have analysed dyadic contests and we know very little about behaviour in multi-party contests, where multiple individuals participate in a contest. Such contests are widely observed in nature and can take several forms, including intervention of a third individual in a contest between two rivals, the formation of a coalition to target a shared opponent or displays by the victor of a contest to bystanders. Given that such contests will have important fitness consequences for all individuals involved, we need to better understand how selection has shaped multi-party contest behaviour. Specifically, by building on insights from dyadic contests, we can explore the decision rules that shape such contests and the payoffs that are generated through simultaneous interaction with multiple opponents.

This DPhil project represents an exciting collaboration between the departments of Zoology and Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, with the aim of investigating the decision rules and payoffs shaping multi-party contest behaviour in two very different vertebrate systems – fish and humans.

(1) Competition in cichlid fish
In shell-dwelling cichlids, female survival and reproduction depends on access to empty snail shells, in which they live and breed. When mature, females settle in shells within a male’s territory, which they defend from other females. Research has shown that males intervene frequently in an effort to reduce competition among females. The student will design and carry out behavioural experiments using a captive population of Lamprologus ocellatus to investigate (a) factors affecting the success of male intervention in female contests; (b) rules guiding an individual’s decision to persevere or withdraw in the face of multiple rivals, and (c) long-term consequences of male interventions for group stability and productivity.

(2) Bullying among adolescents
Bullying is widespread among human adolescents and its appearance suggests strong parallels to the competitive behaviours observed in other animal species, though these are rarely examined within the same framework. Previous research has sought to identify factors predisposing individuals towards bullying but less well understood are the short-term payoffs associated with bullying. Bullying, if witnessed by third parties, could cause the bully to gain reputation or social standing, in turn encouraging more overt displays of bullying – such “audience effects” are observed in other animals, where the presence of an audience results in increased aggression towards rivals. Increases in social status may also be reinforced by post-conflict behaviours such as boasting or threatening, analogous to victory displays seen in other primates. Investigation of multi-player contest behaviours should also prove fruitful for understanding the decision of bystanders to intervene when bullying occurs. By intervening, bystanders may also enhance their reputation and may thus be more likely to intervene when others are present. Alternatively, where intervention comes with the risk of harm, bystanders in groups may be less inclined to intervene in the hope that others do so instead. Importantly, improved understanding of the conditions favouring intervention could lead to the development of strategies designed to promote effective intervention by bystanders. To explore these questions, the student will design and carry out research using a combination of approaches that may include quantitative data collection, social network analysis and state-of-the-art virtual reality simulations of bullying scenarios.

As outlined above, the DPhil project will involve experimental study of fish and human behaviour. The student will receive extensive training in experimental methods and statistics and will have opportunities to contribute their own ideas. The interdisciplinary nature of this project means that while the student will ultimately gain a DPhil in Zoology they will have the opportunity to understand how the study of animal behaviour can enrich our understanding of human behaviour, and vice versa. The project would thus suit a student with strong interests in animal behaviour and psychology.

Application procedure details at: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/courses/dphil-zoology?wssl=1. The application deadline is 25th January 2019.

Funding Notes

Funding is competitive, via either University/Departmental Scholarships or Doctoral Training Centres (View Website).

How good is research at University of Oxford in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 223.80

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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