The evolution of manipulative cheating

  1. Ming Liu  Is a corresponding author
  2. Stuart Andrew West
  3. Geoff Wild
  1. University of Oxford, United Kingdom
  2. University of West Ontario, Canada


A social cheat is typically assumed to be an individual that does not perform a cooperative behaviour, or performs less of it, but can still exploit the cooperative behaviour of others. However, empirical data suggests that cheating can be more subtle, involving evolutionary arms races over the ability to both exploit and resist exploitation. These complications have not been captured by evolutionary theory, which lags behind empirical studies in this area. We bridge this gap with a mixture of game-theoretical models and individual-based simulations, examining what conditions favour more elaborate patterns of cheating. We found that as well as adjusting their own behaviour, individuals can be selected to manipulate the behaviour of others, which we term 'manipulative cheating'. Further, we found that manipulative cheating can lead to dynamic oscillations (arms races), between selfishness, manipulation, and suppression of manipulation. Our results can help explain both variation in the level of cheating, and genetic variation in the extent to which individuals can be exploited by cheats.

Data availability

All results are generated using C and Python. The codes and data used for this study are available at:

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Ming Liu

    Department of Biology, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-5170-8688
  2. Stuart Andrew West

    Department of Biology, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Geoff Wild

    University of West Ontario, University of West Ontario, Ontario, Canada
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-7821-7304


European Research Council (Horizon 2020 Advanced Grant 834164)

  • Ming Liu
  • Stuart Andrew West

Ministry of Education (Oxford-Taiwan Graduate Scholarships)

  • Ming Liu

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Sara Mitri, University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Publication history

  1. Received: May 27, 2022
  2. Preprint posted: May 29, 2022 (view preprint)
  3. Accepted: October 3, 2022
  4. Accepted Manuscript published: October 4, 2022 (version 1)
  5. Version of Record published: November 3, 2022 (version 2)


© 2022, Liu et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Ming Liu
  2. Stuart Andrew West
  3. Geoff Wild
The evolution of manipulative cheating
eLife 11:e80611.
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