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Keywords:

  • Cheat;
  • cooperation;
  • deception;
  • exploitation;
  • intentional language;
  • social evolution

The term “cheating” is used in the evolutionary and ecological literature to describe a wide range of exploitative or deceitful traits. Although many find this a useful short hand, others have suggested that it implies cognitive intent in a misleading way, and is used inconsistently. We provide a formal justification of the use of the term “cheat” from the perspective of an individual as a maximizing agent. We provide a definition for cheating that can be applied widely, and show that cheats can be broadly classified on the basis of four distinctions: (i) whether cooperation is an option; (ii) whether deception is involved; (iii) whether members of the same or different species are cheated; and (iv) whether the cheat is facultative or obligate. Our formal definition and classification provide a framework that allow us to resolve and clarify a number of issues, regarding the detection and evolutionary consequences of cheating, as well as illuminating common principles and similarities in the underlying selection pressures.