Natural selection can favour ‘irrational’ behaviour

J. M. McNamara, P. C. Trimmer, A. I. Houston


Understanding decisions is the fundamental aim of the behavioural sciences. The theory of rational choice is based on axiomatic principles such as transitivity and independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA). Empirical studies have demonstrated that the behaviour of humans and other animals often seems irrational; there can be a lack of transitivity in choice and seemingly irrelevant alternatives can alter decisions. These violations of transitivity and IIA undermine rational choice theory. However, we show that an individual that is maximizing its rate of food gain can exhibit failure of transitivity and IIA. We show that such violations can be caused because a current option may disappear in the near future or a better option may reappear soon. Current food options can be indicative of food availability in the near future, and this key feature can result in apparently irrational behaviour.

  • Received November 6, 2013.
  • Accepted December 19, 2013.
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