Play and the regulation of aggression

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In book: Developmental Origins of Aggression, Chapter: Play and the regulation of aggression, Publisher: Guilford Press, Editors: Tremlay RE, Hartup WH, Archer J, pp.133-157
Is the human being a noble savage, corrupted by the stresses of civilized social being, or a beast of prey, selfish and cruel? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider evidence derived from a diverse sampling of the behavioral sciences, and to reframe the argument: what tendencies to aggression, if any, characterize the human species, and what mechanisms, individual and social, regulate and constrain those tendencies?
Play and the Regulation of Aggression
Introduction: Aggression is Innate, but so is Empathy and Social Being
“With what simplicity would I have demonstrated that man is naturally good and that it
is through these institutions alone that men become bad.” Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts
and Sciences, 1750
“Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep
them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of
every man, against every man.” Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651
Since the 1960’s, our culture has leaned powerfully towards the developmental
philosophy of Rousseau: children are naturally self-regulating, creative, positive
and good. Only the arbitrary forces of culture make them bad. Carl Rogers (1989,
p. x), a psychologist perhaps more responsible than any other for the promotion
of Rousseau’s viewpoint, makes the following observation: Man is a “basically
trustworthy member of the human species, whose deepest characteristics tend
toward development, differentiation, cooperative relationships… whose impulses
tend naturally to harmonize into a complex and changing pattern of self-
regulation; whose total character is such as to tend to preserve and enhance
himself and his species, and perhaps to move it towards its further evolution.”
But is it really true that in our more aggressive moments we are all merely
innocent victims of our cultures? Hobbes (1651) believed very much the opposite:
in his state of nature, “there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is
uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the
commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no
instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; …no
account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all,
continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short.” Many cultures tilt strongly towards Hobbes: the child
is a force of nature, wilful, destructive, capable of self-harm, in dire need of
careful, cautious and intense socialization, and damned in the absence of social
order (Fischer, 1989).
What might a modern psychologist say about this debate, given the progress in
the behavioral sciences over the last century? Is the human being a noble savage,
corrupted by the stresses of civilized social being, or a beast of prey, selfish and
cruel? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider evidence derived from
a diverse sampling of the behavioral sciences, and to reframe the argument: what
tendencies to aggression, if any, characterize the human species, and what
mechanisms, individual and social, regulate and constrain those tendencies?
It should first be noted that the psychoanalytic viewpoint is not a simple
derivative of the Hobbesian perspective, in the same way that the humanistic
view is of Rousseau’s. Freud proposed that aggression was innate, part of the id,
noting that aggression emerged as a consequence of socially-induced frustration,
in the form of conflict between the pleasure and reality principles. In the
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
psychoanalytic world, the id (nature), the ego (the individual and his subjectivity)
and the superego (culture) are all good and bad, simultaneously. In keeping with
this conceptualization, it appears that aggression is a natural component of our
behavioral repertoire, emerging far back in the sequence of development, and not
something added secondarily to an essentially peaceful temperament. Young
children appear fundamentally egocentric (Piaget, 1932). They hold their own
intrinsic desires paramount, and exist in a world where those desires are bounded
only by their immediate consequences. They reliably begin to manifest aggressive
behaviors such as pushing, hitting, kicking and throwing around eighteen months
of age, although there is wide individual variability in the frequency with which
these behaviours are manifested (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). Such aggression,
manifested in defensive or instrumental form (Vitiello & Stoff, 1997), appears
dependent upon the operation of very low-level, early-maturing brain structures,
such as the hypothalamus or periaqueductal grey (reviewed in Peterson & Shane,
in press). The incidence of aggressive behavior peaks, surprisingly, in
kindergarten, and then declines over time (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). By four,
most children have become social. The small number who have not (Nagin &
Tremblay, 1999) tend to be aggressive for the rest of their lives (Coie & Dodge,
1998). Chronically aggressive children, then adults, lack empathy, are suspicious,
narcissistic and self-centered, (Coie & Dodge, 1998) and are characterized by
inappropriate and brittle high self-esteem (Olweus, 1994, Bushman &
Baumeister, 1998). Few interventions appear helpful.
Chimpanzees, our surprisingly close cousins (Sibley & Ahlquist, 1984), appear
primally aggressive, within their social groups, in the same manner as children.
Most of their within-group aggression appears related to dominance-hierarchy
manoeuvring, as it does in the human case (Wilson & Daly, 1997). Such
manoeuvring appears to initially manifest itself in the innocuous and easily
overlooked form of teasing. De Waal (1996, p. 114) states: “[Chimp youngsters]
throw handfuls of dirt or pebbles at their elders, hit them with sticks, splash them
with water, jump on their heads when they are dozing, and so on. Much of the
time, the individual thus bothered takes it remarkably well, tickles the youngster,
or makes a mock chase that turns the whole incident into a game.” Teasing
techniques transform with age, becoming less frequent, but more severe. The
infant engages in little pushes from behind, jumping away when the adult turns
around. The adolescent male, by contrast, manifests full-fledged charging
displays, seeking to dominate his peers, the adult females that surround him and,
eventually, higher-ranking adult males. As adults, chimps form sophisticated
coalitions, jockeying for position and, upon occasion, physically engage and
dominate or subordinate themselves to other individuals, in conflicts that can
become violent (De Waal, 1996).
Dominance hierarchy position appears to be a vital determinant of survival and
reproductive success. In consequence, little is more important to a social animal
than accurate representation of who rules and who is subordinate under what
circumstances (Abbott et al., 2003; Virgin & Sapolosky, 1997). The establishment
and maintenance of a predictable dominance hierarchy allows for the emergence
of orderly access to desirable resources, so that every attempt at consummation
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
within the social environment does not immediately escalate into an aggressive
encounter. Tracking dominance and other social information is so important that
group size appears as an important correlate of neocortical size, in primates,
particularly with regards to brain systems devoted to analysis of complex
relationships (Joffe & Dunbar, 1997). This all means, of course, that
advancement is frequently worth fighting for.
The fact of innate dominance striving, buttressed by the mechanisms of
aggression, does not mean that chimps or humans lack social feeling, and simply
learn to inhibit their aggression through fear or through cognitively-mediated
calculation of the potential consequences of aggressive behavior. Primates are as
gregarious as they are aggressive – even in the immediate aftermath of intense
agonistic encounters (De Waal, 1989b). It appears, therefore, that agonistic and
cooperative behaviors are not necessarily opposed to one another, at least in any
simple manner. First, more innately aggressive social creatures may also have to
be more innately affiliative (De Waal, 1989b), in order to find and maintain
social support, which is more important to them even than the objective safety of
their environment (Abbott et al., 2003). Second, at any given time or place,
individual action and social interaction can be characterized by cooperation at
one level, and competition at another. Among intensely social animals, the social
group, the dominance hierarchy, the superordinate level, clearly constitutes a
form of extended cooperation. Within that group, however, that cooperative
space, the subordinate level, dominance striving takes place. It appears,
therefore, that the essentially aggressive instincts appear complexly
counterbalanced by the interplay of two equally powerful domains of regulation,
one internal and innate; the other, social and emergent.
The internal process that regulates aggression (in addition to simple fear) seems
to be empathy or, perhaps, identification – the ability to feel the experiences or to
adopt the viewpoint of another, respectively. Whether such ability emerges as a
consequence of conditioning, emotional contagion, or cognitively-mediated
understanding, the evidence for its existence is strong (Preston & De Waal,
2002). The circuitry that governs empathy – or its close variants, love, affiliation
and nurturance – is arguably as archaic and deeply rooted as that motivating
aggression (De Waal & Preston, 2002; Panksepp, 1998a), and appears to play a
modulatory role, regulating the intensity of response to those deemed kin. A
wide range of animals exhibit sophisticated reactions to the distress of a
conspecific: rats appear visibly upset by the sight of another rat receiving electric
shocks (Rice & Gainer, 1962; Rice, 1964); hyenas can be primed to eat and drink
by the sight of their group mates doing the same, even when they are not visibly
attending (Yoerg, 1991); and rhesus monkeys will starve themselves if they learn
that their food gathering efforts culminate in the shock of a conspecific
(Masserman et al., 1964). Human infants respond with crying to the crying of
other infants (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow and King, 1979) and, after the first
year, imitate the distress behaviors of others and spontaneously manifest helping
behaviors (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow & Brady-Smith, 1977). Furthermore,
Miller, Eisenberg, Fabes & Shell (1996) have noted that older children who
manifest expressions of facial concern when exposed to the suffering of others are
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
characterized by higher levels of moral reasoning and increased prosocial
The social process that regulates aggression appears more integrally associated,
to say it again, with dominance hierarchy structure. Chimps are perfectly capable
of killing, while hunting and during raiding parties conducted on foreign
conspecifics (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996), so there is clearly no necessary
internal limit on their aggressive behavior. It appears, as well, that the tendency
towards dominance-striving among chimps can at least temporarily override any
innate tendency towards empathy, during intense agonistic within-troupe
disputes. De Waal (1989a) has suggested that under such conditions it is the
whole chimp troupe which constrains the “ambition” of the individual,
becoming agitated en masse and interfering, actively, with any dominance battle
that goes too far. Preston and De Waal (2002) have taken pains to outline the
nature of those factors that modulate the expression of empathy: familiarity and
perceived similarity, as well as factors such as learning, past experience with the
cause of suffering, and the salience of the suffering all affect empathic
responding. What this means is that social forces can alter the probability that
empathy will inhibit aggression, by altering the salience of factors modulating
both. The consequences of extended social being, however, are more indirectly
associated with aggression regulation, and appear related to the function of
neural circuits that mature later, in a predictable, regulated and orderly social
environment. If human children are socialized, within such an environment, they
learn socially-acceptable but more complex alternatives to violence. They begin
to integrate their own proximate desires with distal wishes, and consider and
allow for the wants and needs of others.
The human child appears to face the world with a basic set of functional
motivational states, mediated by low-level but sophisticated brain circuits
governing action, setting the frame for perception, emotion, and cognition
(Gregg & Siegel, 2000; Peterson & Flanders, 2002; Swanson, 2000). The
operation of these circuits enables the child to identify and pursue valuable goals
such as food, water, warmth, social affiliation, self-protection, and the exploring
of new territory (Swanson, 2000, Gregg & Siegel, 2000). Each primary
motivational circuit sets a unidimensional goal for behavior (Swanson, 2000), so
that the child’s first developmental requirement is to learn how to attain that
goal. Secondly, however, he or she must learn how to balance all the primary
goals, and to determine how they can find their fulfillment within a complex
interpersonal environment. The emergence of the emotional circuits, one stage
above those governing motivation, helps fulfill this second set of requirements, as
does the development of prefrontal circuitry, designed to modulate motivation
and emotion and to extend comprehension of the consequences of action across
broad spans of time and place (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Oatley, 1999;
Peterson, 1999).
Initially, the child’s mother provides what is needed, with minimal demands for
reciprocation. However, as the child grows, expectations for reciprocity grow. He
or she enters a world characterized by long term considerations, and by the
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
presence of other people, who have goals and feelings of their own. These goals
and feelings have to be taken into account, as they manifest themselves in the
same environment providing opportunity for the developing child. This means
that the child must not only solve the problem of his own instincts and their
interactions, but the problem of the instincts of others, in combination with his
own. The movement towards such solution appears to be mediated, at least in
part, by empathy, and then by play. The child appears intrinsically able to
experience the motivations and emotions of others. He or she is capable of
affiliative instincts, and is prepared to be a social animal, cooperative and
supportive, as well as competitive and agonistic. The development of social
understanding appears to take place from the bottom up, in a kind of
bootstrapping process. Rough and tumble (R&T) play, mediating and regulating
direct physical contact, allows the child to attune his or her body to the embodied
presence of others. More abstract forms of play allow for the attuning of
motivational states, emotional reactions, and the contents of consciousness, over
increasingly large spans of space and time. Role-play and fantasy mediate
abstract forms of identification, and consequent extension of empathy to those
beyond the immediately familiar. Finally, the adoption of a role, part fiction and
part genuine being, comprises the establishment of a functional position within a
real-world hierarchy of cooperation and dominance.
Numerous researchers have sketched the developmental effects of childhood
play. These include enhanced physical fitness and improved cognitive, emotional
and social function (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Less attention has been paid to
the manner in which play cultivates self-regulation. Play, however, might be
regarded as early social cognition: if I can play with you, I can adapt my actions
and reactions to yours. I can allow your motivational and emotional states, your
reference frame, to modulate mine. I can start to act out your frame, to
understand and to embody it. Eventually, perhaps, we can share the same
perspective, and use the fact of that sharing to work cooperatively towards a
common goal. This means that we can start to share identity, predicated on
voluntary compliance with the same set of values, and benefit mutually from the
consequent control of aggression – not so much because of inhibition, but
because of the alignment of mutual desire. This ability unfolds, over time, in a
lengthy developmental process – one that appears to start not so much with the
mind, as might be initially predicted, but with the body, in direct, physical
contact with the body of others.
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
Rough and Tumble Play and the Embodied Negotiation of Dominance and
Pellis & Iwaniuk (2000, p. 136) state that “species with a greater proportion of
their growth occurring postnatally play more and have more complex play than
do species with more of their growth occurring prenatally,” in keeping with
Bruner’s (1976) suggestion that the prolonged infancy of humans provides more
time for play and more time to develop sophisticated cognitive abilities.
Panksepp (1998a) has argued, specifically, that the mammal brain is hard-wired
for play – at least for rough and tumble (R&T) play. Juvenile rats will exhibit
R&T play, beginning at 17 days of age, even when prevented from engaging in
any prior play experiences, and will play more vigorously, if intermittently
deprived of the opportunity to do so. These early play impulses appear to
manifest themselves only under the appropriate conditions, however. Fear and
hunger and associated states of deprivation quickly eliminate play. Young rats
must also have a secure home environment, with abundant parental
involvement, to play.
R&T play is different from exploratory activity and from aggression – two forms
of behavior with which it can easily be confused. R&T play and exploratory
activity share the fact that both are enjoyable. Habitual R&T play winners and
losers will learn instrumental tasks to gain an opportunity to play, for example,
indicating that play episodes are reinforcing, and both will run toward the play
arena at equal speeds. (The winners enter confidently, however, while the losers
move in more timidly and slowly.) Such enjoyment appears mediated in part by
the same dopaminergic incentive reward circuits underlying exploratory
behavior, although play also activates widespread release of opiates, especially in
those areas characterized by circuits for sexual, maternal and other affiliative
behaviors (Panksepp, 1998a). However, DA agonists such as amphetamines
invigorate exploratory activity, but markedly reduce play. Finally, formal
behavioral analysis clearly discriminates R&T play from genuine aggression. A
playful rat chases his partner around in a “flurry of dynamic, carefree
rambunctiousness” (Panksepp, 1998a, p. 284), pouncing on him, pinning him, in
the consummatory stage of each play episode. Such pinning is clearly a gesture of
dominance, but not one that breaks the rules of play. In a real fight, rats box, and
prance sideways, postures and gestures accompanied by piloerection.
Furthermore, in genuine dominance bouts, the resident animal consistently wins,
if the activity occurs in one of the animal’s home territory. This is not the case in
play fighting (Panksepp, 1998a). Finally, pins during a real battle are more
sustained and menacing then they are in playful contexts.
Play fighting and genuine aggression appear as distinguishable within the context
of human behavior, as they are among rats. Blurton Jones (1972), for example –
taking a cue from Harlow and Harlow’s (1965) observations of play fighting in
young rhesus monkeys – clearly differentiated R&T play from physical
aggression among preschool children. Children involved in a play fight wrestle,
grapple, jump, tumble, and run, while laughing and exhibiting facial expression
of enjoyment. In play fighting contexts, children spend most of the time in close
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
proximity, whereas they come together briefly for a genuinely aggressive act, and
then pull away, rapidly. Positive emotional expressions are also markedly absent
on such an occasion. Despite these relatively subtle differences, children are
highly adept at distinguishing playful from aggressive fighting (Smith & Boulton,
1990; Boulton & Smith, 1992), regardless of their culture (Costabile et al., 1991),
and play fighting gestures exchanged between experienced children seldomly
elicit a hostile response (Boulton, 1991). Children who become skilled at R&T
play learn directly what forms of agonistic interaction will be tolerated by others,
and carefully and judiciously limit the social expression of their aggression.
Mothers are the first to initiate R&T play cycles with their infants, through
tickling bouts and mocked acts of aggression. As motor coordination develops,
and children become more active, fathers, who play more robustly, become the
play partner of choice (Roopnarine, Hooper, Ahmeduzzaman, & Pollack, 1993).
Mother depression and father absence are therefore associated with childhood
externalizing behavior problems (Bates, Bayles, Bennett, Ridge, & Brown, 1991;
Pagani, Boulerice, Tremblay, & Vitaro, 1997; Patterson, Reid & Dishion, 1992).
Depressed mothers are less likely to tickle and play peek-a-boo with their infants
(Field, 1998). Older children of single mothers have fewer opportunities to learn
to regulate aggressive behavior, since fathers tend to engage in play fighting after
the end of the first year. Such children appear awkward when invited to engage
in R&T play. Accidentally, or motivated by frustration, they hurt their play
partners. The victims respond with rejection. Aggression emerges in response to
this rejection (Asher & Coie, 1990; Smith, Hunter, Carvalho, & Costabile, 1992),
and a detrimental positive feedback cycle establishes itself.
The broader nature and significance of R&T play, as well as its role as a scaffold
for more sophisticated social cognition, may best be revealed within a broader
conceptual framework, including both Piagetian and neuropsychological
components. As the child develops, he or she experiments, stage by stage, with
the construction of small-scale motor patterns, designed to attain small-scale,
motivated ends. Piaget (1932, p. 16-18) points out, for example, that in the
initial, primary stages of play, a child handles objects at the dictates of his
“desires and motor habits.” Since “play is purely individual,” at this stage,
“ritualized schemas” develop – skilled play habits – but no collective patterns,
much less rules. The child first plays by him or herself, constructing a repertoire
of functional actions, then conceptions, from the bottom up. Swanson (2000, p.
115) describes the physiology underlying the construction of such a functional
hierarchy: “the lowest or first level of the locomotor system is formed … by a
subset of motoneuron pools in the spinal cord ventral horn that innervates the
limb muscles responsible for locomotor behavior. The second major level is
referred to as the locomotor pattern generator, which lies entirely within the
spinal cord, near the motoneuron pools that it regulates. In fact, it is itself a
hierarchy of increasingly complex motor pattern generators that coordinate and
time muscle contractions across individual joints, then across multiple joints
within a particular limb, and finally amongst all four limbs.”
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
Swanson continues: “a third major level is represented, at least in part, by an ill-
defined region of the dorsal tegmentum known as the mesencephalic locomotor
region, and rostroventral to this is a fourth major level in an ill-defined region of
the caudal hypothalamus/rostral midbrain – the so called subthalamic or
hypothalamic locomotor region.” This hypothalamic locomotor region, a
“locomotor pattern controller,” (p. 116) which generates downward outputs to
the spinal locomotor pattern generator, is the next control system to develop, as
the individual constructs increasingly complex hierarchies of motor behavior. It
is of interest to note, in this regard, (1) that tactile stimulation during infancy – an
important aspect of R&T play, and one linked to it through the specialized skin
receptors involved in such play (Panksepp, 1998a) – has an important organizing
and stabilizing effect on different brain structures, including the HPA axis
(Lande, Scarr, & Gunzenhauser, 1989; Meaney et al., 1988) and (2) that that
children with chronic aggression problems are frequently characterized by
dysregulated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity (McBurnett, Lahey,
Rathouz, & Loeber, 2000; van Goozen, Matthys, Cohen-Kettenis, Thijssen, &
van Engeland, 1998). Traumatic experience during infancy can apparently cause
permanent alterations to the HPA axis, by detrimentally affecting steroid
receptor function in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
Piaget’s emphasis on embodiment and procedural knowledge, given
physiological grounding by Swanson, is particularly clear in his description of the
earliest play stages. Before there are stateable rules, there are behavioral patterns.
These emerge first under the control of internal motivation, and then as a
consequence of social interaction. As the child progresses towards Piaget’s
second stage – the first point at which the social world has any major impact –
more complex understanding emerges. First, the child starts to copy himself,
using procedure to map procedure, at the initial but still embodied stage of
genuine representation. He experiments, initially, using trial and error to attain
his goals. Any successful action is immediately imitated and practiced. In this
manner, the child builds a repertoire of voluntarily accessible and automatized
motor schema (Piaget, 1932). The imitative process then extends itself to
interpersonal action, so that the child becomes capable of imitating others. It
should be noted, however, that even at this second, imitative stage, the child is
still not genuinely playing with others. He or she engages in socially-constructed
and possibly sanctioned means of playing, but is neither trying to win, nor
attempting to unify the various modes of playing individually developed or
imitated. Nonetheless, at this stage, patterned social interactions can emerge,
spontaneously, as a consequence of the interaction of motivated and
emotionally-driven participants, who are constantly exchanging information
about which actions and reactions are acceptable. Although such primary social
interaction may look “rule-governed” to an observer, because of its regularity, it
is still instantiated at a purely procedural, implicit level.
It is possible, nonetheless, to see the emergence of a procedural morality at this
level. Panksepp (1998a) describes the manner in which rats learn to govern their
pinning behavior: Stable patterns of play dominance, corresponding to the
establishment of complex, socially-modified motor behaviors, rapidly emerge
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
during R&T play. One rat ends up on top more often during pinning, in
repeatedly matched play pairs. However, if the dominant rat pins its playmate
more than 70% of the time, then the subordinate, who typically initiates the play
sequence, begins to ignore the victor, and playful activity gradually diminishes
(Panksepp, 1998a). This means that the dominant rat must learn to respond
carefully to the behavioral cues of the subordinate. If the subordinate breaks the
shared play frame by escaping, or biting, as a consequence of undue frustration
or anxiety, then its value as a playmate decreases. Whether this is morality, or
merely conditioning, is beside the point. Such modulation still constitutes the
beginning of social behavior, laying the basis for the development of the higher-
order morality that keeps aggression properly regulated.
The child is alone, at the first stage of play, constructing the basic elements of
motor competence – grasping, letting go, extending and contracting limbs –
adapting himself to his or her own motivations and their interactions, in an
increasingly complex world of objects. Then he or she starts to combine those
actions, sequencing multiple motivated patterns of action, under the guidance of
higher-order control systems. His isolated manner of being takes on a social
aspect, with the onset of R&T play, and he begins to establish socially-modulated
behavioral patterns. R&T play, in turn, shades into dramatic play, laid down in
its most fundamental aspects over the sensorimotor substructure constructed first
by the individual and then modified by R&T play. As play becomes increasingly
dramatic, increasingly abstract, the substructure for the highest stages of social
cognition begins to establish itself.
Abstract Play and the Cooperative Establishment of Joint Fictional Worlds
During R&T play, children use their bodies in playful dominance interactions,
modifying and constructing motor schemas that take the other’s qualities into
account, learning to control anxiety, frustration and the thrill of victory. Some of
this control is best understood as inhibition. Whalen & Henker (1991) reported,
for example, that theories of impaired behavioral control appeared more relevant
to understanding the interpersonal problems of young ADHD children than
theories of impaired social cognition. Hughes, White, Sharpen & Dunn (2000)
noted that conduct disorder in four-year-olds was associated with problems in
executive function (associated with inhibitory control), but not with problems in
performance on higher-order theory of mind tasks. Séguin, Zelazo & Tremblay
(1999) associated physical aggression among preschoolers with deficits in self-
regulatory cognitive skills, while Séguin et al. (1995) associated aggression
among older children with impaired executive or prefrontal function. However,
theories of inhibition appear insufficient to account for more complex forms of
aggression regulation, because they do not take into account the emergence of
cooperative behaviours and conceptions, designed to maximize the utility of
social being. These are better understood, perhaps, as sophisticated alternatives
to aggression, instead of mechanisms that inhibit, govern or regulate aggression.
To cooperate means to establish a mode of occupying the same space as other
individuals, in a manner that makes aggression positively counterproductive. The
groundwork for this ability appears to be scaffolded at the sensorimotor level –
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
mediated, perhaps, by R&T play – but the ability itself is something different:
something more akin to the understanding of narrative, drama and fiction;
something more like the development of explicit theory of mind.
Higher-order, more explicit, cooperative morality appears to emerge around
Piaget’s (1932) third developmental stage, appearing around age 7. At this stage,
each child playing a given game starts to try to win – tries to dominate the
narrow hierarchy of achievement specified by the rules of the game. At first
glance, this appears as something essentially competitive. However, for
individual victory to occur, the modes of playing between children have to be
unified, so that all players share the same goal. This means that any
disagreements about the game have to be resolved, and that aggression emerging
as a consequence of those disagreements must be rendered unnecessary, before
any attempt to play, let alone win, can begin. Piaget notes that even this more
complex form of play appears to emerge procedurally, rather than explicitly.
Within the confines of a given group game, where each child can check him or
herself against the behavior of the others, conflict-free stable patterned playing
quickly emerges. However, if the playing children are separated, and interviewed
individually, they give disparate or even contradictory accounts of the emergent
game’s formal “rules.” At the third stage, children are just beginning to map the
contours of their structured social behavior into truly representational linguistic
patterns. They still need the information provided by the presence of the others to
maintain adherence to the predictable pattern of the game.
Once a joint social ritual or game is firmly established, however, its nature, as a
regular occurrence, can be explicitly described and codified. As a consequence of
emerging cognitive ability, and because the child can test his explicit verbalizable
hypotheses against those of others, the patterns that actually constitute the game
and the explicit description of the game come into alignment. At this point, the
child has successfully “mapped” his own socially-modified sensorimotor output,
and becomes a conscious player (Piaget, 1932). This convergence means that
children playing the same game come to inhabit the same, fantasy-predicated,
fictional or dramatic world. It is the ability to establish such joint, fictional
habitation – more than alignment of motor patterning, more than inhibition of
aggressive responding – that constitutes cooperation, and that allows for the
modulation of motivation and emotion, towards some shared end. In a good
game, everyone has fun. There is no need to be defensive. There are many
opportunities for joint gain. In consequence, there is little need for violence.
To understand the organization characterizing complex social play, it is
important to note that innate motivational systems are not simple deterministic
systems of drive. Nor do these systems merely set goals, although they do that as
well (Swanson, 2000). Instead, states of motivation serve as axioms or predicates
of experience, providing a delimited, bounded but flexible frame for perception,
emotion, cognition and action (Barsalou, 1983; Peterson & Flanders, 2002).
With the establishment of such a frame, the more sophisticated goal-oriented
individual can strive towards necessary goals in multiple, non-reflexive manners,
instead of mindlessly heading in a single, familiar but potentially
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
counterproductive direction. These frames appear governed by low-level brain
circuitry, primarily within the hypothalamus, but also depend upon the extended
processing resources of the limbic system and cortex.
Motivationally bounded states or frames are manifold in number, as there are
qualitatively different states of motivation (Rolls, 1999; Swanson, 2000), and
they manifest themselves singly and sequentially, as processes of perception,
emotion, cognition and action must be directed towards specified, limited targets
(Miller, 1956; Cowan, in press). Each frame appears to contain particularized
conceptualizations of the current state of affairs, as well as the desired end
(Peterson, 1999; Peterson & Flanders, 2002). The individual or individuals
operating within the confines of a given story move from present to future, in a
linear track. Two points define such a track, or line. A present position cannot be
defined, without a point of future contrast. Likewise, a potential future cannot be
evaluated – judged affectively as better – except in terms of a present position. A
verbal description of such a conceptualization can be regarded as the most basic
form of fiction – drama, narrative and, not infrequently, game (Peterson, 1999).
The construction of a fiction-like frame, simplified by the momentary
domination of a single motivational state, helps specify what ends action should
pursue, and what phenomena might be considered as objects in that pursuit
(Hacking, 1999; Lakoff, 1987; Tranel, Logan, Frank & Damasio, 1997;
Wittgenstein, 1968). The immature individual or child, pursuing his or her purely
individual goals, acts and perceives in a solipsistic world, established in
accordance with those goals. As the developing individual becomes more
complex, however, control over the contents of the goal-framework starts to
become more differentiated, so that although fundamental underlying
motivational states still have access to it (in cases of mounting hunger or thirst,
etc.), so do emergent systems of even more complex control. The hippocampus,
for example, allows for determination by context or situation (LeDoux, 1996)
and the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex allows previously unvalued goals to attain
the status of true value (Krawczyk, 2002). The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,
finally, allows complex, abstracted frameworks to govern behaviour, removing
the developing individual from the incessant short-term demands of basic
motivational states (Pochon, Levy, Fossati, Lehericy, Poline, Pillon, Le Bihan &
Dubois, 2002). This sequentially emergent access by higher-order systems to
motivational framing allows the individual to formulate goals that take multiple
states of motivation and the vagaries of external context into account. This
“external context” also constitutes social being: the fact of motivated others,
singly and in groups, who are also rank-ordering their values hierarchically, and
implementing their motivational worlds, while constantly exchanging
motivational and emotional information with one another.
The individual construction of a motivationally-predicated frame or story allows
an individual to specify starting place, goal, objects of perception, and
implication for emotion, and to therefore deal with those bits of the world
relevant to a particular need or desire. The joint construction of such a frame,
such a story, integrates perception across individuals, placing them in the same
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
world of objects, at the same time it places their emotions in alignment. This
allows more than one individual to inhabit the same experiential goal-directed
space, and to thereby cooperate, voluntarily, to reach the goal and to maintain
the integrity of the space. This is the process by which fundamental agreements,
nullifying the very necessity of aggression (rather than merely inhibiting its
expression), come into being.
The specific circuitry mediating the establishment of such agreement has been
recently outlined, provisionally, at the prefrontal cortical level. Rizzolatti,
Fogassi and Gallese (2001) describe a localized class of visuomotor neurons
comprising the “mirror neuron system.” First described in monkeys, mirror
neurons are located in area F5 of the ventral premotor cortex. This area contains
neurons that code “goal-related” motor acts, such as grasping by hand and by
mouth. Rizzolatti et al. (2001) state, with regards to these neurons: “some of
these cells are motor neurons, others also respond to visual stimuli. Some of
them are activated by the presentation of three dimensional objects, whereas
others – mirror neurons – require action observation for their activation” (p.
661). Mirror neurons, part of the system that uses motor output patterning as part
of what occurs during an act ofperception, have a number of remarkable
properties. First, they do not respond to the presence of a motivationally
significant object (say, an apple) in isolation. Nor do they respond to the sight of
a conspecific engaged in a context-independent action (making a grasping
action). But they do respond to the sight of a conspecific making a grasping
action in the presence of a motivationally significant object. More to the point,
their pattern of action when observing such a motivated sequence precisely
matches their pattern of action when that sequence is undertaken by the observer.
Rizzolatti et al. (2001, p. 662) note that this neural “congruence is sometimes
extremely strict. In such cases, the effective motor action and the effective
observed action coincide both in terms of goal (for example, grasping) and in
terms of how the goal is achieved (for example, precision grip).” In other cases,
however, the congruence is broader, matched more to the broad goal of the
action. The action of these less specific neurons is of even greater interest,
because their broader response pattern is not a sign of inaccuracy, but of
increased sophistication: they are capable of “imitating” more approximate
patterns of motor output – those that “generalize the goal of the observed action
across many instances of it…. [T]he novelty of these findings is the fact that, for
the first time, a neural mechanism that allows a direct matching between the
visual description of an action and its execution has been identified. Such a
matching system constitutes a parsimonious solution to the problem of
translating the results of the visual analysis of an observed action… into an
account that the individual is able to understand” (p. 662).
This understanding appears complete and comprehensive, stretching from the
abstract, through the emotional, to the physical. The motor system underlying
mirroring accepts neural inputs from systems governing sensation, cognition, and
circadian state, and has three primary divisions of output: somatic, endocrine,
and neuroendocrine (Swanson, 2000). Descending control systems from higher-
order, “limbic” structures such as the amygdala governing affective response
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
have also been well described (LeDoux, 1996). Furthermore, area F5, which
contains the mirror neurons, shares connectivity to inferior parietal lobe with
area “a” of the superior temporal sulcus – a brain area that is part of a circuit
including the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (Amaral et al., 1992). This
combination of facts implies that the matching described by Rizzolatti extends
past action patterns, to the associated emotional, motivational, cognitive and
neuroendocrine consequences and concomitants of those action patterns. To
understand someone therefore begins to appear more and more like walking a
mile in his or her skin, rather than in his or her shoes.
Such a hypothesis appears even more compelling, once careful attention is paid
to the additional neuroanatomical and functional significance of area F5, the
monkey homologue of Broca’s area in humans – the prefrontal area governing
voluntary speech. This anatomical equivalence suggests that the primary purpose
of verbal communication could well be the exchange of motivated patterns of
action, instead of the description of the objective world (Peterson, 1999).
Furthermore, it appears to be the association between the mirror neuron system
and speech that allows verbal communication to take on its embodied, imitation-
provoking meaning. These ideas are very important with regards to
understanding and considering the importance of dramatic social play and
associated forms of narrative. Imagine that the developmental elaboration of the
mirror neuron system allows a maturing child to embody the action and
motivational states of those he observes first, directly, with more or less faithful
and precise mimicry. Then imagine that the inter-relationship between the
linguistic abilities of Broca’s area and the mirror neuron circuitry allow
communicating children to verbally instantiate shared motivated or goal-oriented
states, not at the level of precise imitation, but at a higher, generalized state. This
means that cooperating and communicating children, engaging in pretend play,
can jointly establish fictional worlds and then coordinate their motivations, their
actions, their emotions – their very object-perceptions – within those worlds.
Finally, imagine that this process of coordination within the confines of a
fictional world constitutes the process of scaffolding that underlies (1) the
understanding of narrative and fiction, in their verbal forms; (2) the capacity to
engage in large-scale, cooperative social enterprises (which have a pronounced
fiction-like aspect, prior to their manifestation as “completed projects” within the
world) and (3) the ability to engage in understanding abstract and even more
disembodied semantic thought. A plan, after all – including a shared plan – is
nothing but the projection of a compelling fiction onto extant and agreed upon
objects and contexts. The joint establishment of such a plan, motivationally
significant to all, emotionally gripping, eliminates the very necessity for conflict.
Sophisticated mother-child conversations about emotions appear to lay the
groundwork for children’s discussions of affective states and the emergence of
ability to adopt the perspective of another (reviewed briefly in Oppenheim, Nir,
Warren & Emde, 1997). Oppenheim et al. (1997) have demonstrated, as well,
that preschool children able to engage in less emotionally disrupted and more
coherent pretend play representations of a hypothetical parent-child separation
event with their mothers were also able to produce sentence-stem completion
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
narratives that were more prosocial, less aggressive and more coherent, and were
rated by their mothers as characterized by fewer behavior problems concurrently
and one year later. Wolf (1990) has suggested, likewise, that the development of
narrative ability increases children’s ability to view interpersonal situations from
multiple perspectives, including those of their potential selves (their individual
selves, in a different motivational state) and those of others. Hughes & Dunn
(1997) provide direct support for the notion of social collaboration in pretend
play, by (1) noting a strong positive relationship between mental state talk and
turn-taking and (2) noting that the relationship between mental state talk on the
part of one child is as strongly affected by mental state talk on the part of his or
her partner as it is by individual variability in verbal ability. Seja and Russell
(1999) have demonstrated, similarly, that fantasy play ability is significantly
related to emotional understanding, over and above individual variation in verbal
ability, while Taylor & Carlson (1997) have demonstrated that children whose
fantasy and pretend play abilities was more sophisticated also did better on
theory of mind tasks, independently of their verbal intelligence. Finally, Hughes
& Dunn (1997) note that theory of mind task performance is positively associated
with references to mental state, independently of age.
Brown, Donelan-McCall & Dunn (1996, p. 847) note, in this regard, that the
maintenance of interactive games and the construction of fantasy worlds “must
surely provide multiple opportunities for the fledgling theorist to appreciate the
workings of the mind” (from Hughes and Dunn, 1997). Eckler & Weininger
(1989) have paid particular attention to the elaboration of such pretence worlds,
pointing out that younger children tend towards “pre-episodic” and older
children toward “episodic play,” which is very much dramatic and story-like.
Furthermore, these authors also clearly distinguish two aspects of pretense,
“setting-up” and “play” – processes that appear to correspond very much to the
establishment of a shared frame and action within that frame, respectively.
Children setting up a pretend play episode appear to be constructing a joint
fictional frame, a delimited subsection of the “real world,” too complex to fully
model. This delimited subsection has a consummatory element, which is the
complex goal of the fictional world (Rumelhart, 1977), and also contains shared
objects of perception – objects which, in the case of pretense, may not even be
there (as a child is perfectly capable of acting “as if” something is there, and “as
if” an object that is there is in fact something else). Children who are “setting up”
a play episode therefore appear not only to be negotiating the nature of the
actions that will occur in that space, but mutually regulating each other’s
perception (as suggested previously). Pretend play thus logically appears
associated with talk about mental state (that is, talk directed at establishing or
inquiring about a subjective state of being, i.e., “I mean,” or “you think”) at rates
much higher than chance (Hughes & Dunn, 1997) and, more specifically, with
mental state talk directed at another’s inferred mental state, desired (that is,
directed) or actual.
Children with autism, characterized by fundamental deficits in the substructural
elements of social cognition, also fail to use social gaze, which serves to specify
the target of joint motivation and perception, in empathy and joint attention
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
tasks (Charman, Swettenham, Baron-Cohen, Cox, Baird & Drew, 1997). This
observation adds to the knowledge base already established demonstrating
similar impairments among such children in empathy, pretend play and joint
attention (reviewed briefly in Charman et al., 1997; Baron-Cohen, Allen &
Gillberg, 1992). The gaze dysfunction is particularly interesting, given that gaze
monitoring constitutes a procedural technique for determining intent, or goal-
orientation, on the part of another, and is clearly part of the social-cognitive
system that enables human beings to establish shared goal-oriented conceptual
frames and associated behaviors and emotions (Adolphs, 2001; Hobson, 1990).
Autistic children also appear delayed, if not fundamentally impaired, in imitation
(Charman et al., 1997).
The fact that individuals who have sustained left or right prefrontal damage in
adulthood appear impaired on theory of mind tasks, even when their deficits on
classic executive cognitive tests have been controlled statistically, may also be
relevant to understanding the emergent neuropsychological control over shared
motivation (Rowe, Bullock, Polkey & Morris, 2001), and helps elucidate,
physiologically, the distinction between pure inhibition of aggression and
voluntary cooperation. Similar patterns of deficits appear to characterize non-
Alzheimer’s frontal variant frontotemporal dementia, which may be
characterized by emergent suspiciousness, dysregulation of formerly socialized
behavior, and antisociality (Lough & Hodges, 2002; Lough, Gregory & Hodges,
2001). In the latter case, emergent antisociality appears associated specifically
with a breakdown of social cognition, but not classic executive function (Lough
et al., 2001), perhaps as a consequence of deterioration in orbitofrontal/
ventromedial circuitry, which appears specifically activated during social
cooperation (McCabe, Houser, Ryan, Smith and Trouard, 2001; Rilling,
Gutman, Zeh, Pagnoni, Berns & Kilts, 2002).
Dunn & Hughes (2001) demonstrated a clear distinction between hard-to-
manage children and normal children with regards to violent fantasy play, with a
clearly higher proportion of the former group, both boys and girls, consistently
engaging in pretend games that involved killing, fighting or beating, despite the
fact that no overall difference in frequency of pretend play as such emerged. Such
interest in violent fantasy was itself related to poor executive control and
language ability, impaired theory of mind (related as well to language ability),
frequent antisocial behavior, displays of anger and refusal to help a friend, poor
communication and coordination of play, more conflict within friendships, and
decreases in empathetic moral sensibility two years later. Hughes, Cutting and
Dunn (2001) then attempted to determine if conduct-disordered children were
more likely to respond negatively to the threat of losing a game because (1) they
were preoccupied with aggression, in general, as indexed by violent themes in
their pretend play, (2) they were delayed or deviant with regards to reading the
intentions of others (potentially manifesting a hostile attribution bias) or (3) were
characterized by a problem with executive function, resulting in difficulties
inhibiting inappropriate behaviors. Age four violent pretend play theme
frequency, theory of mind performance, and executive function all appeared
significantly associated with negative behavior to threat of loss at age five at the
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
zero-order correlation level of analysis, and all appeared of significant or near-
significant statistical import when entered simultaneously in a regression
analysis. The picture of multidimensional causality portrayed by this study was
marred somewhat in its clarity by the results of longer term follow-up: by age
seven, only age-4 violent pretend play theme measure remained as a significant
predictor (accounting for 25% of the variance). Nonetheless, there is suggestive
evidence that many different forms of regulation of aggression exist, at very
different levels of neurological instantiation.
Perhaps the effects of various pathologies, heightening the probability of
aggression, might be additive, or even interactive: particularly aggressive children
might lack basic inhibition (perhaps first instantiated as a consequence of R&T
play, governing motor output in the presence of others), might be impaired with
regards to theory of mind and capacity to cooperate and, finally, as Crick and
Dodge (1996) and Happe and Frith (1996) have suggested, might actively infer
hostile intent on the part of others necessitating revenge, thus rendering even
their limited capacity for social understanding counterproductive. Jenkins &
Greenbaum (1999) have argued, in this regard, that disruptive children develop
an overt “adversarial goal structure” that leads to frequent anger and aggression.
Such a structure could be a generalized hypothesis such as “cooperation is
impossible,” a theme that makes antisociality more or less logically inevitable, or
“individual victory trumps cooperative action,” a theme logically associated with
narcissism, which is characterized by high levels of extraversion (social
dominance striving) and low levels of agreeableness (warmth, empathy). Rose &
Asher (1999) have also noted that children who pursue the explicit goal of
revenge towards a friend consequent to conflict within a friendship were (1) more
likely to use aggressive strategies, such as self-interest assertion, and hostility (2)
less likely to use prosocial strategies, such as relationship maintenance and
accommodation-compromise (3) more likely to lack friends and (4) more likely
to have poor quality friendships.
It is interesting to note in this regard first that over the long term, strike back
once, then forgive and forget strategies are much more likely to win iterative
repetitive tit-for-tat cooperative exchange games such as Prisoner’s Dilemma
than are any other strategies (Wedekind & Milinski, 1996) and second that the
combination of yoked goal-and-strategy implementation sounds very much like a
social game (not least because of the emergence of constant reciprocity). It is also
very relevant with regards to the potential developmental origins of an essentially
adversarial game that maltreated children are more likely than their non-
maltreated peers to develop more negative and constricted and less coherent
narrative or story-like representations of their caregivers, and that these more
negative representations, while potentially accurate in the circumstances in
which they emerged, generalize poorly, and are associated with emotion
dysregulation, aggression and peer rejection. Positive and coherent
representations of caregivers, by contrast, are related both to prosocial behavior
and to preference by peers (Shields, Ryan and Cicchetti, 2001). Maltreated
children appear to see the social surround as “angry, malevolent, punitive,
exploitative, and conflictual” (reviewed briefly in Shields et al., 2001). It is
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
particularly interesting, therefore, to note that R&T play initiated with popular,
pro-social young school age children generally turns into play-with-rules, or more
advanced pretend play, while such play initiated with aggressive children,
degenerates rapidly into violence (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Given the
aggressive child’s vengeful and mistrustful view of the world, it is not
unreasonable to suppose that exploratory R&T play forays on the part of one
child with regard to another for assessment of the basic social strategies
employed – or not employed – by that. Finally it is useful to note that violent
video game play – a form of scaffolded pretend play that highlights themes of
revenge and destruction – does in fact appear causally associated with aggressive
behavior, thoughts and feelings, and with a decrease in prosociality (Bushman &
Anderson, 2002).
Kochanska and colleagues (Murray & Kochanska, 2002) have recently developed
a statistically coherent and longitudinally stable battery of “effortful control
tasks,” which include capacity to delay gratification and to voluntarily suppress
or initiate actions – performance on which can be assessed as early as 2.5 years –
and showed some relationship between lesser performance on this task battery
and aspects of conduct disordered behavior such as impaired attentional control.
Forman & Kochanska (2001) have also demonstrated that children who were
more imitative and responsive during pretend-play sequences modeled by
mothers were also more positively responsive to maternal control and less likely
to manifest noncompliance in a typical discipline context. This appears to mean
that children who are more capable of adopting a shared frame of reference in a
play-like context are also those who are more willing to “play the right game”
when attention is called to their transgressions or rule-breaking behaviors. Stipek,
Recchia and McClintic (1992) note, in this regard, that young children do not
really distinguish between teaching and disciplinary contexts, reacting with pride
to doing well and with shame to doing badly in both contexts. Kochanska, Aksan
& Koenig (1995) and Kochanska, Tjebkes & Forman (1998) have therefore
proposed the concept of committed compliance, something opposite to that of
“the adversarial goal structure,” distinguished from externally-imposed
obedience by its “enthusiastic and self-sustaining quality, unmediated by ongoing
parental control” (Forman & Kochanska, 2001, p. 199), and described further as
“visible embracing of the parent’s agenda” and as “a behavioral tendency
consistent across situations… shown by the child’s continued restraint when the
[parent] is no longer present”. This sounds very much like the adoption of a
shared motivational frame of reference or micro-world, constructed on the basis
of true social cooperation, and not merely the inhibition of aggression.
Peterson, J.B. & Flanders, J. (2005). Play and the regulation of aggression. In Tremblay, R.E.,
Hartup, W.H. & Archer, J. (Eds.). Developmental origins of aggression. (pp. 133-157). New York:
Guilford Press.
First, it is clear that both Hobbes and Rousseau were correct. The individual
brings to the world a set of inborn motivations, including those that underlie
aggression, and these motivations are brought under control – or not – as a
consequence of socialization. This control appears at least two-fold. The direct
inhibition and regulation of aggression appears established as a consequence of
R&T pay, and appears associated in principle with the development of some
forms of executive control. The formal adoption of a prosocial stance on the
world, by contrast, mediated by emergent trust in the trustworthiness of self and
other, culminates not so much in the capacity to obey rules and to stay on track
(associated perhaps with inhibitory and executive control) but in willingness to
voluntarily enter into complex, cooperative social games with others (mediated
by shared, goal-directed frames of reference) (Peterson, 1999; Peterson &
Flanders, 2002). However, the tendency towards the social good seems as
predicated on innate capability and interest – on inborn empathy – as the
tendency towards aggression. There is therefore no shortage of evidence for
innate human good, and much suggestion that it is in fact even reasonably
considered the norm. Furthermore, it is clear that pathological socialization
experiences, first in the context of the family and second in the context of early
peer experiences – that is, a variant of the institutional sickness described by
Rousseau – can produce and then reinforce in a child the conviction that the
world is a cruel and sadistic place, fit only for interpretation through lenses
colored by the desire for revenge.
Next, it is clear that complex processes of play, beginning with R&T play and
culminating in the production of sophisticated, abstract socially-shared frames of
reference, play an important role in the modulation of aggression, both with
regards to its inhibition, and with regards to its integration into fully functional
individual and social identities. The first problem that life presents, so to speak, is
the necessity of satisfying basic motivational states. The next, emergent problem
is the necessity to construct and integrate techniques designed to satisfy these
motivational states across different states, across different time-frames and in a
wide variety of contexts. Given the intensely social nature of the natural human
environment, this problem of integration must eventually expand to include the
other, the motivated other.
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  • ... Generally speaking, pretend play is associated with adaptive functioning (e.g., self-regulation) and, in turn, better social behavior (Elias and Berk 2002; Russ 2004). Both aggressive behavior and pretend play peak during the early childhood years (Peterson and Flanders 2005). Interactions among boys, particularly in the context of sociodramatic play, may include rough and tumble play with an assortment of pretend aggressive behaviors (Fehr and Russ 2013). ...
    ... Exposure to media violence has been associated with a number of outcomes relevant to gender stereotypes (e.g., aggression) and may be transferred to children's play, in the form of gender stereotypes or weapon play (e.g., Anderson et al. 2003; Brown et al. 2009). Often, playful interactions with peers start out with benign intent, but may turn aggressive if the individual is unable to self-regulate or show appropriate levels of the play (e.g., Peterson and Flanders 2005). Though superhero programs do contain violence (which may be related to gender stereotypes), they contain many other non-violent messages about masculinity, as we have detailed earlier in the introduction. ...
    Full-text available
    Although content analyses have found that superhero programs in the media portray strong gender stereotypes of masculinity, little research has examined the effects of viewing such programs. In the current study, 134 mothers of preschool children (from the Western and Northwestern United States) reported their child’s superhero exposure in the media, male-stereotyped play, weapon play, and parental active mediation of the media at two time points (1 year apart). Results revealed that boys viewed superhero programs more frequently than girls, with nearly a quarter of boys viewing superhero programs at least weekly. Analyses revealed that superhero exposure was related to higher levels of male-stereotyped play for boys and higher levels of weapon play for both boys and girls from Time 1 to Time 2, even after controlling for initial levels. Parental active mediation did not negate these effects, and even served to strengthen one finding for girls. Specifically, among girls with high superhero exposure, weapon play was highest for girls who received frequent active mediation. Implications of the results are discussed with a focus on whether such programs are developmentally appropriate for preschool children.
  • ... These individual differences in emotions cognitive regulation, actions and thoughts are related to other variables, favoring or harming a healthy adaptation (Holmes, Kim-Spoon, & Deater-Deckard, 2016). In the same way, children's interactions with peers plays a fundamental role in executive function development, such as increased cognitive flexibility, impulsive responses inhibition (Peterson & Flanders, 2005), and self-regulation progress (Lindsey & Colwell, 2003). However, not all children experience positive interactions with peers (Iyer, Kochenderfer-Ladd, Eisenberg, & Thompson, 2010). ...
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    Due to the relationship found in several studies between executive functions deficits and different psychopathological and behavioral disorders, research on the development of executive functions in children have increased in the last decade. In addition, the increase and improvement of executive functions have linked to the development of social competence. Also, the increase and improvement of social competence and academic achievement have also linked to the development of these functions. However, the researches that study the relationship between executive functions and social competence have focused mainly in adolescence and adulthood, or in people with some kind of disorder. Being less frequent studies in people without any neurological or psychological pathology or in child population. For this reason, the aim of this research is to understand the relationship between executive functions and social competence in children aged 5 years without associated pathologies. The study involved 119 students (60 boys and 59 girls) from 5 years of age, enrolled in the last year of Kindergarten, in two private but publicly funded schools in Granada. The results indicate that there is a positive relationship between social skills and executive functions. However, intervention programs in social competence rarely include executive functions as a key element to be worked on.
  • ... In free play children have the autonomy to guide their play by their interests and needs, and therefore to be the agents of their own development. Free play is the primary context for positive social-interactions, but it also enables children to act out aggressive tensions, helping them to regulate these aggressive feelings and behaviors (Peterson & Flanders, 2005). Kwon, Bingham, Lewsade, Jeon, and Elicker (2013) examined whether free or structured play would promote better outcomes in terms of parent-child interactions, language and play behaviors. ...
    Full-text available
    Play has an important role in various aspects of children’s development. However, time for free play has declined substantially over the last decades. To date, few studies have focused on the relationship between opportunities for free play and children’s social functioning. The aims of this study are to examine whether children´s free play is related to their social functioning and whether this relationship is mediated by children´s emotional functioning. Seventy-eight children (age, 55- 77 months) were tested on their theory of mind and emotion understanding. Parents reported on their children’s time for free play, empathic abilities, social competence and externalizing behaviors. The main findings showed that free play and children’s theory of mind are negatively related to externalizing behaviors. Empathy was strongly related to children’s social competence, but free play and social competence were not associated. Less time for free play is related to more disruptive behaviors in preschool children, however certain emotional functioning skills influence these behaviors independently of the time children have for free play. These outcomes suggest that free play might help to prevent the development of disruptive behaviors, but future studies should further examine the causality of this relationship.
  • ... These forms of play involve intricate interactions with others that require both parties to understand that the nature of the behaviors is playful. Social pretend play, particularly if involving frightening or angry themes, requires appropriate modulation of emotion and arousal (Galyer and Evans, 2001)—as does successful involvement in R&T (Peterson and Flanders, 2005). Although little research has examined the effects on children denied these forms of play over long periods, short deprivation periods are followed by longer and more intense engagement in play and are associated with compromises in attention (Pellegrini and Smith, 1998). ...
  • ... This latter part of the possible consequences of troublesome relations with peers highlights the importance of social interactions, or play with peers during the childhood years, which has been highlighted by Coplan and Arbeau (2009). Interactions with peers have been shown to be an essential ingredient in the development of self-regulation (Lindsey & Colwell, 2003), to develop executive functions such as inhibiting impulsive responses (Peterson & Flanders, 2005), and to develop cognitive flexibility in response to social play that rewards children for trying out new things (Bateson, 2005). Two studies in the current special section focus on the role of peers on children's cognitive development. ...
    Full-text available
    Children's executive functions, encompassing inhibitory control, working memory and attention are vital for their self-regulation. With the transition to formal schooling, children need to learn to manage their emotions and behavior in a new and complex social environment that with age increases in the intensity of social interactions with peers and teachers. Stronger executive functions skills facilitate children's social development. In addition, new experiences in the social environments of school also may influence executive function development. The focus of this special section is on this potential impact of elementary school social experiences with peers and teacher on the development of children's executive functions. The collection of papers encompass various aspects of peer and teacher social environments, and cover broad as well as specific facets and measures of executive functions including neural responses. The collection of papers sample developmental periods that span preschool through mid-adolescence. In this introduction, we summarize and highlight the main findings of each of the papers, organized around social interactions with peers and interactions with teachers. We conclude our synopsis with implications for future research, and a specific focus on prevention and intervention.
  • ... ). in primates, xenophobic reactions include target aggressions (ringtailed lemurs, Lemur catta, Jolly, 1966), agonistic chasing (sifaka, Propithecus verreauxi, Benadi et al., 2008), cooperative attacks (rhesus macaques, Macaca mulatta, Wade, 1974), coalitionary killing (chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes , Wrangham, 1999), and warfare (humans, Homo sapiens, cashdan, 2001). the power of play in limiting xenophobia is a well-known phenomenon in humans (Peterson & flanders, 2005; Gray, 2009). Antonacci et al. (2010) demonstrated that also in one of the most basal group of primates (the lemurs) play works in regulating xenophobia. ...
    Play is extremely difficult to define and its benefits are not easily detectable. Due to its multifunctional nature, play represents a good opportunity to test some hypotheses on social, communicative, and cognitive aspects of animal and human behaviour. For this reason, comparative studies of social play can make contributions to a wide variety of fields (evolutionary biology, ethology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience). Here, we present data published in the last ten years by the primatologists of the Natural History Museum (University of Pisa) on a number of primate species in order to elucidate the importance of studying play behaviour in a comparative perspective. Firstly, we explore the immediate functions of adult social play especially in managing tension situations both within and between group members. Then, we discuss data on the importance of playful signals as tools in limiting competition and increasing cooperation that characterized each social play session. Finally, we provide new data on the presence of facial mimicry during play in a cercopitecoid species, a phenomenon homologous to human laughter contagion. The facial mimicry, up to now demonstrated only in apes and humans, is the expression of emotional contagion, a fundamental building block of empathy. In conclusion, such findings suggest that play behaviour also provides a good opportunity to investigate the affecting mechanisms at the basis of animal social cognition. © 2011, Societa Toscana di Scienze Naturali. All rights reserved.
  • ... In the same sense, there is also evidence that play specifically taps into EF skills, also providing opportunity to practice and develop them. For example, rough and tumble play has been shown to be an important context for developing inhibitory responses towards aggressive impulses in childhood (Peterson and Flanders 2005). Furthermore, play has been implicated in the development of divergent thinking skills even while controlling for child IQ (Russ et al. 1999) as well as contributing to cognitive flexibility by forcing the child to try new things (Bateson 2005). ...
    Full-text available
    Peer interactions and executive function play central roles in the development of healthy children, as peer problems have been indicative of lower cognitive competencies such as self-regulatory behavior and poor executive function has been indicative of problem behaviors and social dysfunction. However, few studies have focused on the relation between peer interactions and executive function and the underlying mechanisms that may create this link. Using a national sample (n = 1164, 48.6 % female) from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), we analyzed executive function and peer problems (including victimization and rejection) across three waves within each domain (executive function or peer problems), beginning in early childhood and ending in middle adolescence. Executive function was measured as a multi-method, multi-informant composite including reports from parents on the Children's Behavior Questionnaire and Child Behavior Checklist and child's performance on behavioral tasks including the Continuous Performance Task, Woodcock-Johnson, Tower of Hanoi, Operation Span Task, Stroop, and Tower of London. Peer problems were measured as a multi-informant composite including self, teacher, and afterschool caregiver reports on multiple peer-relationship scales. Using a cross-lagged design, our Structural Equation Modeling findings suggested that experiencing peer problems contributed to lower executive function later in childhood and better executive function reduced the likelihood of experiencing peer problems later in childhood and middle adolescence, although these relations weakened as a child moves into adolescence. The results highlight that peer relationships are involved in the development of strengths and deficits in executive function and vice versa.
  • Article
    The authors conducted a randomized controlled trial to investigate differences among 36 elementary school age children who received 16 sessions of child‐centered play therapy and 35 children who were assigned to a waitlist control group. Pre‐ and postassessments were used to measure children's levels of aggression, self‐regulation, and empathy per parent and teacher report. Results revealed statistically significant positive results for parents and nonstatistically significant results for teachers. Implications and future research are examined.
  • Article
    This study examined the effectiveness of intensive child-centered play therapy with children identified as having disruptive behaviors. Participants were recruited from public schools in the urban area of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia area. A total of 24 participants completed the study: 18 boys and 6 girls aged 6 to 9 years old (M = 7); 17 Australian Caucasians, 1 English (U.K.) Caucasian, 1 Asian, 3 Hispanic/Latino, and 2 Biracial. Participants were randomly assigned: 12 to the experimental group and 12 to the waitlist control group. Children in the experimental group received 20 intensive Child-centered play therapy (CCPT) sessions: twice daily for 10 days. For each child participant, a parent completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and a teacher completed the CBCL Teacher’s Report Form (TRF) 3 times: at pretest, posttest, and 1-week follow-up. Results of factorial ANOVAs indicated a statistically significant interaction effect on CBCL Externalizing score, F(2, 44) = 14.747, p F(2, 44) = 4.042, p = .024, with a large effect size of η2 = .135. Therefore, both parents and teachers indicated that children with externalizing behaviors who received intensive CCPT showed a significant decrease in those behaviors.
  • Article
    Research Findings: Pretend play is an essential part of child development and adjustment. However, parents, teachers, and researchers debate the function of aggression in pretend play. Different models of aggression predict that the expression of aggression in play could either increase or decrease actual aggressive behavior. The current study examined pretend play and classroom behavior in preschoolers. Children (N = 59) were administered a measure of pretend play, and teacher ratings of classroom behavior were obtained. Pretend play skills were positively associated with prosocial behavior in the classroom and negatively associated with physical aggression in the classroom. In particular, expression of oral aggression in play related to less physical aggression and more prosocial behavior in the classroom. Practice or Policy: These findings suggest that pretend play should be encouraged, as these skills relate to positive behaviors in the classroom. In addition, it was found that aggression in pretend play was not an indicator of actual aggressive behavior, as it related to positive behaviors in the classroom. Implications for parents and teachers are discussed.