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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)390-405
Number of pages16
JournalLearning and Behavior
Issue number4
Early online date4 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Communication
  • Cooperation
  • Joint action
  • Shared intentionality
  • Social play


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