Learning & Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 390–405 | Cite as

Social play as joint action: A framework to study the evolution of shared intentionality as an interactional achievement

  • Raphaela Heesen
  • Emilie Genty
  • Federico Rossano
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
  • Adrian Bangerter


Social play has a complex, cooperative nature that requires substantial coordination. This has led researchers to use social games to study cognitive abilities like shared intentionality, the skill and motivation to share goals and intentions with others during joint action. We expand this proposal by considering play as a joint action and examining how shared intentionality is achieved during human joint action. We describe how humans get into, conduct, and get out of joint actions together in an orderly way, thereby constructing the state of “togetherness” characteristic of shared intentionality. These processes play out as three main phases, the opening (where participants are ratified and joint commitments are established), the main body (where progress, ongoing commitments, and possible role reversals are coordinated), and the closing (where the intention to terminate the action is coordinated and where participants take leave of each other). We use this process in humans as a framework for examining how various animal species get into, maintain, and get out of play bouts. This comparative approach constitutes an alternative measure of those species’ possession of shared intentionality. Using this framework, we review the play literature on human children and different social species of mammals and birds in search of behavioral markers of shared intentionality in the coordination of play bouts. We discuss how our approach could shed light on the evolution of the special human motivation to cooperate and share psychological states with others.


Social play Joint action Shared intentionality Communication Cooperation 


Author note

Raphaela Heesen, Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Emilie Genty, Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Federico Rossano, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California San Diego, CA, USA; Klaus Zuberbühler, Department of Comparative Cognition, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, Scotland (UK); Adrian Bangerter, Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

The present research was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant No. CR31I3_166331 awarded to AB and KZ). The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Raphaela Heesen
    • 1
  • Emilie Genty
    • 1
  • Federico Rossano
    • 2
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
    • 3
    • 4
  • Adrian Bangerter
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Work and Organizational PsychologyUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of California San DiegoSan DiegoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Comparative CognitionUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland
  4. 4.School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsScotlandUK

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