Experience in aggressive contests often affects behaviour during, and the outcome of, later contests. This review discusses evidence for, variations in, and consequences of such effects. Generally, prior winning experiences increase, and prior losing experiences decrease, the probability of winning in later contests, reflecting modifications of expected fighting ability. We examine differences in the methodologies used to study experience effects, and the relative importance and persistence of winning and losing experiences within and across taxa. We review the voluminous, but somewhat disconnected, literature on the neuroendocrine mechanisms that mediate experience effects. Most studies focus on only one of a number of possible mechanisms without providing a comprehensive view of how these mechanisms are integrated into overt behaviour. More carefully controlled work on the mechanisms underlying experience effects is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
Behavioural changes during contests that relate to prior experience fall into two general categories. Losing experiences decrease willingness to engage in a contest while winning experiences increase willingness to escalate a contest. As expected from the sequential assessment model of contest behaviour, experiences become less important to outcomes of contests that escalate to physical fighting.
A limited number of studies indicate that integration of multiple experiences can influence current contest behaviour. Details of multiple experience integration for any species are virtually unknown. We propose a simple additive model for this integration of multiple experiences into an individual's expected fighting ability. The model accounts for different magnitudes of experience effects and the possible decline in experience effects over time.
Predicting contest outcomes based on prior experiences requires an algorithm that translates experience differences into contest outcomes. We propose two general types of model, one based solely on individual differences in integrated multiple experiences and the other based on the probability contests reach the escalated phase. The difference models include four algorithms reflecting possible decision rules that convert the perceived fighting abilities of two rivals into their probabilities of winning. The second type of algorithm focuses on how experience influences the probability that a subsequent contest will escalate and the fact that escalated contests may not be influenced by prior experience. Neither type of algorithm has been systematically investigated.
Finally, we review models for the formation of dominance hierarchies that assume that prior experience influences contest outcome. Numerous models have reached varied conclusions depending on which factors examined in this review are included. We know relatively little about the importance of and variation in experience effects in nature and how they influence the dynamics of aggressive interactions in social groups and random assemblages of individuals. Researchers should be very active in this area in the next decade. The role of experience must be integrated with other influences on contest outcome, such as prior residency, to arrive at a more complete picture of variations in contest outcomes. We expect that this integrated view will be important in understanding other types of interactions between individuals, such as mating and predator-prey interactions, that also are affected significantly by prior experiences.