When an up-and-coming chimp is deciding whether to challenge the alpha male to a fight, and when two antelopes size each other up before locking horns, each combatant must estimate his chances of winning. If they overestimate their chances, they’ll regularly get a beating, and if they underestimate their chances, they’ll lose out on the rewards of success (which usually includes lots of sex). So natural selection has probably honed a certain degree of risk intelligence in animals where males engage in violent forms of intraspecific competition.
I wonder if anyone has collected statistics about the outcomes of these fights. If so, I’d be curious to know whether challengers win about half the fights they start. If they win substantially more than half, or significantly fewer, this wouldn’t necessarily mean they were underestimating or overestimating their chances of winning, because we don’t know how the costs of losing and the benefits of winning stack up against each other. If the benefits of winning outweigh the costs of losing, then a good utility maximizer would risk starting fights even when the odds were stacked against him. The costs and benefits might be different for challengers and incumbents, of course, which would make things even more complex. Someone must have modeled this, and there’s probably some complex game-theoretic analysis of optimal behavior, but are there any empirical data? If you know of any, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org