Human Nature

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 44–72 | Cite as

Not by Strength Alone

Children’s Conflict Expectations Follow the Logic of the Asymmetric War of Attrition
  • David PietraszewskiEmail author
  • Alex Shaw


The Asymmetric War of Attrition (AWA) model of animal conflict in evolutionary biology (Maynard Smith and Parker in Nature, 246, 15–18, 1976) suggests that an organism’s decision to withdraw from a conflict is the result of adaptations designed to integrate the expected value of winning, discounted by the expected costs that would be incurred by continuing to compete, via sensitivity to proximate cues of how quickly each side can impose costs on the other (Resource Holding Potential), and how much each side will gain by winning. The current studies examine whether human conflict expectations follow the formalized logic of this model. Children aged 6–8 years were presented with third-party conflict vignettes and were then asked to predict the likely winner. Cues of ownership, hunger, size, strength, and alliance strength were systematically varied across conditions. Results demonstrate that children’s expectations followed the logic of the AWA model, even in complex situations featuring multiple, competing cues, such that the actual relative costs and benefits that would accrue during such a conflict were reflected in children’s expectations. Control conditions show that these modifications to conflict expectations could not have resulted from more general experimental artifacts or demand characteristics. To test the selectivity of these effects to conflict, expectations of search effort were also assessed. As predicted, they yielded a different pattern of results. These studies represent one of the first experimental tests of the AWA model in humans and suggest that future research on the psychology of ownership, conflict, and value may be aided by formalized models from evolutionary biology.


Evolutionary psychology Developmental psychology Resource conflict Resource holding potential Value Ownership 



We would like to thank Kristina Olson for access to participant pool resources.

Supplementary material

12110_2015_9220_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (281 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 281 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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