Saturday, January 23, 2010

Protean Behavior

Game Theory: in essence is the idea that in games it's smartest to not only pick the next best moved based on the principles of the game, but also on the anticipated move of the other player.  It's thinking about thinking.  It's predictive playing.

Biological Context: there is a constant cat and mouse game (quite literally in some cases) that operates between predator and prey over generations and millenia.  The prey that can best anticipate how the predator will hunt them can out smart them and survive.  The predator that can best predict how the prey operates or will flee gets the next meal.  On some level this can operate along the lines of the Red Queen hypothesis, where both parties are evolving to have greater levels of skill and adaptation, but equally so and therefore are locked on a treadmill going no where (think Alice and Wonderland).  

Game Theory in Games:  the best move is the unpredictable one.  You may have a Royal Flush, but if you 'tip your hand' and people can predict that you do you have no real advantage.  Lying, randomness and unpredictability win.  Class room example: the game called "Matching Pennies."  The game can be played were one person is the 'opposer' and the other is the 'matcher.'  Both will either pick or flip their coin at the same time.  If both match, then the 'matcher' wins both coins.  If they are opposites then the 'opposer' gets them both.  Without prepping the kids on the best strategy the game will at first start off quite boring and strategy less with both sides equally winning.  The lesson really starts when the students start to anticipate what the other will do and incorporate long runs of the same side to add unpredictability.  In the end, the best strategy is true randomness.

Greek Terminology: Proteus was a sea god that could change his shape unpredictably to avoid capture.  Protean behavior is the random actions of animals to be unexpected.

Biological Application:  Haven't you ever seen a pet gerbil, rat, fish, dog, cat, squirrel or other animal FREAK OUT when startled?  That's Protean behavior!  I see it with my catfish every time I turn on the light in his tank.  Also, I know you've seen it with squirrels that try to randomly jink, zig zagging to confuse your predator car.  They're trying to shock, dismay, startle, confuse and be unpredictable to gain a slight edge and avoid capture.  Think of it like this, if every time a mouse jinked to the left when startled by a cat the cats would 'learn' through selective pressure to always dive to the left.  The same would be true if they went straight, right, up, etc.  The best move is unpredictability.  Predators exploit the same strategy too.  Aboriginals, weasels and other predators have been known for their 'crazy dance' to confuse and mystify their prey and while they're still trying to figure out WTF--WHAMO!  Din-din.

Human Implications:  maybe that ability was where our creativity first came from!


Kudos go to Geoffrey Miller for The Mating Mind, from which a plegorized the ideas for this blog from.


  1. You really gave up religion for biology? Wow, that's depressing. Nature is not concerened with justice. But you are right about protean behavior. It is used all the time by people who resist popular culture to avoid getting psyched out.

    1. Can you explain what you mean by, "...Resist popular culture to avoid getting psyched out."? I think I agree with you, but I just want to make sure.

  2. Ha! Give up on religion? I'm at church 2 or 3 times a week! Sure, my views have changed over my life, but whose hasn't?

    Peace to you, anonymous friend,


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