Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making

From Strüngmann Forum Reports

Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making

Edited by Peter Hammerstein and Jeffrey R. Stevens

A multidisciplinary examination of cognitive mechanisms, shaped over evolutionary time through natural selection, that govern decision making.





A multidisciplinary examination of cognitive mechanisms, shaped over evolutionary time through natural selection, that govern decision making.

How do we make decisions? Conventional decision theory tells us only which behavioral choices we ought to make if we follow certain axioms. In real life, however, our choices are governed by cognitive mechanisms shaped over evolutionary time through the process of natural selection. Evolution has created strong biases in how and when we process information, and it is these evolved cognitive building blocks—from signal detection and memory to individual and social learning—that provide the foundation for our choices. An evolutionary perspective thus sheds necessary light on the nature of how we and other animals make decisions.

This volume—with contributors from a broad range of disciplines, including evolutionary biology, psychology, economics, anthropology, neuroscience, and computer science—offers a multidisciplinary examination of what evolution can tell us about our and other animals' mechanisms of decision making. Human children, for example, differ from chimpanzees in their tendency to over-imitate others and copy obviously useless actions; this divergence from our primate relatives sets up imitation as one of the important mechanisms underlying human decision making. The volume also considers why and when decision mechanisms are robust, why they vary across individuals and situations, and how social life affects our decisions.


$60.00 X ISBN: 9780262018081 448 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 7 color illus., 6 b&w illus., 3 halftones


Peter Hammerstein

Peter Hammerstein is Professor in Organismic Evolution at the Institute for Theoretical Biology at Humboldt University, Berlin and an external member of the interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute.

Jeffrey R. Stevens

Jeffrey R. Stevens is Assistant Professor of Psychology and a faculty member of the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


  • Hammerstein and Stevens's new collection of essays on the mechanisms underlying human and animal decision making and their evolution definitely makes for rewarding reading. Written by some of the most central researchers in the field, it presents recent and original work on the topic in a way that is engaging and accessible.

    Acta Biotheoretica


  • The contributors to this volume, comprising leading authorities on the evolution of cognition, set out to forge a new decision theory by integrating insights from evolutionary theory and cognitive science. The fledgling Darwinian approach that they propose seeks to go beyond what traditional economic decision-making, associative learning or evolutionary psychology achieved on their own, yet draws on relevant findings from each of these schools. Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making is a refreshingly sensible and stimulating cocktail, in which evolutionary theory is instructive but not omnipotent, associative learning is central but no panacea, cognitive architecture is fashioned by selection but not massively modular, and neither mechanism nor function is viewed as subservient to the other.

    Kevin Laland

    Professor of Biology, Center for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, University of St. Andrews