Handicap Principle‏

It was only in the mid 1970’s that the husband and wife scientist couple of Amotz and Avishag Zahavi published a book titled The Handicap Principle. In the book, they put forward a novel idea to explain several previously baffling aspects of animal behaviour, including the famous tail of the peacock.

Male Blue Peacock in Melbourne Zoo, Australia.

The male Pavo Cristatus or Blue Peacock

The principle relies on three chief tenets: a) Animals communicate with each other through signals; b) these signals, in order to be effective, must be honest, and c) honest signals are expensive, i.e., the animal producing an honest signal incurs a cost in doing so.

A desirable male is one who is fit in spite of the handicap he carries.

The peacock carries its tail as an advertisement of its fitness. They suggested that the elaborate tail is a means of saying that “in spite of carrying the handicap of a cumbersome tail, I am able to carry on my daily activities as well as a peacock which has a lesser tail”.

The Zahavis argue that a signal is liable to be effective when it is honest, that is, when it conveys a true measure of how fit the signaller is. An honest signal, however, must be expensive. Why? Because signals do not come for free. They cost something (e.g., energy) to produce.

The stronger you are, the more easily you can bear this cost. A strong individual can afford to incur a larger cost than a weak individual can. The upshot is this; if you convey the impression that you are handicapping yourself, and if the nature of the handicap is such that a weak individual could not afford it, you are signalling that you are strong. Assuming that you are not a fool (and fools do not survive long).

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