Benefits of Social Play

By Cecile Ashen-Young

The function of social play, as proposed by Marc Bekoff, is to learn cooperation and fairness which, in turn, leads to “the formation and maintenance of social relationships”  (Bekoff, 2004).  Cooperation, fairness, and possibly even forgiveness (Bekoff, 2004), are integral components of social skills and, once learned with specific individuals in given situations, may be generalised to other individuals in social situations involving sharing and defending resources, grooming and care. 

While it has been suggested that social skills, specifically in the domestic dog, evolved through selection “on systems mediating fear and aggression towards humans” (Hare, 2005), Bekoff proposes that social skills, and in particular cooperation, are not by-products of this selection process but evolve independently because they benefit both the individual within a social group and the group itself  (Bekoff, 2004).

Image by Patrick Hendry

Cooperation and the influence it can have on successful relationships within a social group may be established through play fighting because it “offers opportunities for suspension of behavioral asymmetries” that have been observed in other contexts (Smuts, 2002).  It has also been suggested that play fighting in sub-adults and adults functions as social bonding and social testing.  In other words, “play fighting is a tool that can be used to assess and manipulate conspecifics” (Pellis, 2002).  

Bekoff suggests that fairness, which goes hand-in-hand with cooperation, may have evolved as a means of learning social skills.  The strategy of playing fair provides a benefit to the individual because it affords more opportunities for play, and therefore more opportunities to learn social skills (Bekoff, 2001).  Similarly, the concept of forgiveness is offered by Bekoff as a possible trait that can influence cooperation and therefore provide a benefit during social play.

The mechanisms involved in social play include role reversal, self-handicapping, play signals and behavioural sequences that are altered to differentiate them from sequences used in other contexts including aggression and mating.  These processes function to maintain social play and to keep play behaviour from escalating into fight or sexual behaviour.

Bekoff points out that there is little empirical evidence that details the survival and fitness benefits of play but suggests that a lack of play in animals may be costly in terms of survival.  He researched play behaviour in coyote pups and found that social play and social bonding within the group were directly related (Bekoff, 2004).  Those pups that engaged in less social play were less well bonded with group members and were more likely to break away from the group, thereby decreasing their chances of survival.  Despite the lack of research into this area, Bekoff suggests that social play gives animals an arena in which to learn cooperation and fairness, traits that positively influence social development and social relationships.


Bekoff, M. (2001). Social play behavior-Cooperation, fairness, trust and the evolution of morality. Journal of Consciousness Studies , 81-90.

Bekoff, M. (2004). Wild justice, cooperation and fair play-Minding manners, being nice and feeling good. In R. &. Sussman, The Origins and Nature of Sociality (pp. 53-79). NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Hare, B. &. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Pellis, S. M. (2002). Keeping in touch: play fighting and social knowledge. In M. A. Bekoff, The Cognitive Animal: empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition (p. 421). Massachussetts: MIT.

Smuts, B. (2002). General communication in baboons and dogs. In M. A. Bekoff, The cognitive animal: empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition (p. 304). Massachussetts: MIT.