Human Nature

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 496–516 | Cite as

The Implicit Rules of Combat

  • Gorge A. Romero
  • Michael N. Pham
  • Aaron T. GoetzEmail author


Conspecific violence has been pervasive throughout evolutionary history. The current research tested the hypotheses that individuals implicitly categorize combative contexts (i.e., play fighting, status contests, warfare, and anti-exploitative violence) and use the associated contextual information to guide expectations of combative tactics. Using U.S. and non-U.S. samples, Study 1 demonstrated consistent classification of combative contexts from scenarios for which little information was given and predictable shifts in the acceptability of combative tactics across contexts. Whereas severe tactics (e.g., eye-gouging) were acceptable in warfare and anti-exploitative violence, they were unacceptable in status contests and play fights. These results suggest the existence of implicit rules governing the contexts of combat. In Study 2, we explored the reputational consequences of violating these implicit rules. Results suggest that rule violators (e.g., those who use severe tactics in a status contest) are given less respect. These are the first studies to implicate specialized mechanisms for aggression that use contextual cues of violence to guide expectations and behavior.


Intrasexual competition Social learning Combat Contextual violence Fighting behavior 



We value the thoughtful input given by Shiloh Betterley, Kayla Causey, Justin Lynn, and Elizabeth Pillsworth throughout this project.

Supplementary material

12110_2014_9214_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1 mb)
ESM 1 (PDF 1.03 mb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gorge A. Romero
    • 1
  • Michael N. Pham
    • 2
  • Aaron T. Goetz
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCalifornia State UniversityFullertonUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA

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