Learning enables adaptation in cooperation for multi-player stochastic games

Feng Huang, Ming Cao*, Long Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
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Interactions among individuals in natural populations often occur in a dynamically changing environment. Understanding the role of environmental variation in population dynamics has long been a central topic in theoretical ecology and population biology. However, the key question of how individuals, in the middle of challenging social dilemmas (e.g. the 'tragedy of the commons'), modulate their behaviours to adapt to the fluctuation of the environment has not yet been addressed satisfactorily. Using evolutionary game theory, we develop a framework of stochastic games that incorporates the adaptive mechanism of reinforcement learning to investigate whether cooperative behaviours can evolve in the ever-changing group interaction environment. When the action choices of players are just slightly influenced by past reinforcements, we construct an analytical condition to determine whether cooperation can be favoured over defection. Intuitively, this condition reveals why and how the environment can mediate cooperative dilemmas. Under our model architecture, we also compare this learning mechanism with two non-learning decision rules, and we find that learning significantly improves the propensity for cooperation in weak social dilemmas, and, in sharp contrast, hinders cooperation in strong social dilemmas. Our results suggest that in complex social-ecological dilemmas, learning enables the adaptation of individuals to varying environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200639
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number172
Publication statusPublished - 25-Dec-2020


  • reinforcement learning
  • evolutionary game theory
  • stochastic game
  • adaptive behaviour
  • social dilemma
  • RISK

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