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The term "cheating" is used in the evolutionary and ecological literature to describe a wide range of exploitative or deceitful traits. Although many find this a useful short hand, others have suggested that it implies cognitive intent in a misleading way, and is used inconsistently. We provide a formal justification of the use of the term "cheat" from the perspective of an individual as a maximizing agent. We provide a definition for cheating that can be applied widely, and show that cheats can be broadly classified on the basis of four distinctions: (i) whether cooperation is an option; (ii) whether deception is involved; (iii) whether members of the same or different species are cheated; and (iv) whether the cheat is facultative or obligate. Our formal definition and classification provide a framework that allow us to resolve and clarify a number of issues, regarding the detection and evolutionary consequences of cheating, as well as illuminating common principles and similarities in the underlying selection pressures.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





318 - 331


Cheat, cooperation, deception, exploitation, intentional language, social evolution, Animals, Behavior, Animal, Cooperative Behavior, Deception, Evolution, Molecular, Selection, Genetic