Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Behavioral Ecology 24 (2013), pp. 13-14; doi: 10.1093/beheco/ars089


Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey R. Stevens. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. Used by permission.


In 1956, Herbert Simon scolded researchers using economic theory to characterize rational choice, admonishing that “organisms … do not, in general, ‘optimize’ ” (p. 129). Simon rejected the notion that decision makers met the god-like qualifications required of rational agents. Instead, he proposed that, to fully understand decision making, one must study two critical components: the cognitive capacities of the organism and the structure of the environment in which an organism operates (Simon 1956).

Despite the clear relevance of Simon’s ideas to the study of animal behavior, few have appreciated his contribution (but see Callebaut 2007). The role of the environment has been appropriately credited as an important force shaping animal behavior via the concept of adaptive specialization. For instance, comparative analysis indicates that a species’ foraging ecology likely molds how it deals with risk and temporal delays in decision making (Heilbronner et al. 2008; Rosati et al. 2007). The cognitive capacities of organisms, however, have not been properly considered by models of animal behavior, and this is where Fawcett et al.’s notion of the behavioral gambit is useful.