“Whatever I just did, it’s just play!”

Animals make use of social indicators to initiate play, and to delineate a space for play behaviour that is not to be taken too seriously by playmates. Taking an example from canine social behaviour as observed in the video above, the play bow is used as an indicator of the desire of an individual to play. It gives the impression of being ritualized and according to Dr Marc Bekoff, the meaning of the play bow is essentially this: “Whatever I did, or am about to do, I’m just and am still playing!” In such a context, social codes of conduct are learnt in a relatively safe environment, as transgressions are generally not punished in the course of social play. Individuals learn what is permitted, what is not and what constitutes fair play, and how to behave fairly in a group setting.

Dr Bekoff suggests some connections between social play behaviour and animal morality, by studying the codes of social conduct and linking it to the evolution of morality. In the video, the ‘T’ position is considered an indication of inappropriate play behaviour, causing the standard Poodle to seek recourse to the display of aggression. In this sense, the Airedale is not ‘behaving fairly’ by not cooperating with the others and breaking the rules of the game. Animals have expectations when engaging in social encounters, and certain norms are expected to be abided by as the outright violation of these norms signifies unfair treatment and the lack of social etiquette. Thus, it is interesting to study the evolution of animal morality and to extrapolate from social play behaviour.

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Bekoff, M., 2001. Social play behaviour: cooperation, fairness, trust and the evolution of morality. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 8 no. 2: 81-90.

“Canine Social Behaviour” by Wallascoemom. YouTube Channel, February 23, 2008. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf5ryLjACLg (accessed 05 April 2010).