Some people report that they argue for play. We question whether and how often such arguments are mutually entertaining for both participants. Play is a frame for arguing, and the framing may not always be successful in laminating the eristic nature of interpersonal argumentation. Previous research and theory suggest that playfulness may be associated with aggression. Respondents (N = 199) supplied self-report data on their arguing behaviors and orientations. We found support for the hypothesis that self-reported playfulness and aggression are directly associated. We found less evidence for our hypothesized inverse association between self-reported playfulness and indices of cooperation and avoidance. Self-reports of playfulness are not significantly associated with expert coders’ ratings of either playfulness or aggressiveness. The claim that an argument is playful should be met with skepticism, although playful arguments are possible.
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A perceptive reviewer pointed out that an experimenter bias might have been operating here, since the two coders knew that the project’s aim was to explore what we thought was the problematic relationship between playfulness and aggressiveness. While we cannot dismiss this possibility, the high reliabilities of the ratings imply that both coders would have had to exhibit the experimenter bias to almost exactly the same degree, which is somewhat unlikely. A better but more resource-intensive methodology would have been to have the two ratings done by separate sets of coders, all blind to the study’s objectives. Readers can see examples of how the raters distinguished the reports in the Appendix.
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Bing Han and David Payne made equal contributions to this project, and are listed alphabetically.
Examples of Arguments Rated as Varying in Playfulness and Aggressiveness, with Original and then Abbreviated Prompts
Playful, Aggressive, Respondent 14
Describe how the playful argument began. It began by watching the TV show Rock of Love 2 with Bret Michaels. I mentioned how this girl looked fishy because her lips were so big and then my boyfriend told [me] my upper lip is too thin and I need to get it bigger. So, then I asked him when he was going to give birth since he’s gotten a beer belly. And this goes on and on about our physical appearances.
Describe how the playful argument continued. My boyfriend recently told me I need to get calf implants and so this whole thing started all over again.
Describe how the playful argument ended. It’s still ongoing.
Besides being playful, what other goals do you think may have been served by the playful argument? (You can say “none” if that’s the best answer.) I think this argument is initiating change in each other. He’s going on diet to lose his beer belly and well I just refuse to get any cosmetic surgery but I have been spending more time on my appearance.
Playful, Non-Aggressive, Respondent 20
Beginning. The playful argument between my friend and I began at work. We used to work right next to each other at a bank. We both thought we knew how to do a particular action involving a certain transaction. I had my way and he had his way. I described my way to him and why it was the most logical between the two while he did the same with his reasoning. It was playful because we weren’t really arguing. We were disagreeing but we began to add personal puns in the argument which is why it became playful and not serious. By us adding personal information and laughing while we did so, we both knew the other was joking.
Continuation. The playful argument began by us disputing about a particular way a transaction was supposed to be done. As stated above, we both gave our reasoning, as we continued to argue, we both realized that we were both stubborn in our ways. It was extremely playful because towards throughout the whole argument we kept saying things to one another such as “idiot”, “you never understand anything”, “I knew you were always dumb”, among other things. We laughed the entire time we did our arguing because we knew not to take the other one serious.
Ending. It actually ended abruptly because our manager walked to our area to see what the commotion was about. We told her we had just been playing around and after she left we made a few more comments to each other through stifled laughter but that was the end of the argument.
Other goals. None, just to have a good time and start something up while being bored at work.
Non-Playful, Aggressive, Respondent 39
Beginning. I was at work and one of my co-workers made a comment to another one of my co-workers who happens to be in the ROTC program. The comment was something like, “I hate living in this country.”
Continuation. The ROTC member first ignored the comment, but you could tell he was deeply offended. My other co-worker would not back down and kept making comments knowing it would get a rise out of the ROTC member.
Ending. The ROTC member calmly said, “Then why don’t you move to another country?” and walked away.
Other goals. No goals, just entertainment. My co-worker was simply trying to get a rise out of my other co-worker. When I asked him why he started the argument he said he was bored.
Non-Playful, Non-Aggressive, Respondent 47
Beginning. My roommate was discussing the relationship between journalists and government officials, that journalists benefit more from interactions between themselves and governmental officials.
Continuation. I explained that I felt that governmental officials benefit more from this interaction, or, at least, that it is a mutually beneficial relationship, although governmental officials guide the information that is given and therefore the stories that are written.
Ending. It ended with us agreeing to disagree.
Other goals. Expressing our views on our future careers.
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Hample, D., Han, B. & Payne, D. The Aggressiveness of Playful Arguments. Argumentation 24, 405–421 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-009-9173-8
- Argument frames
- Verbal aggressiveness