Risking an adaptational explanation of play

Last month, I read a journal article on children’s play. I considered writing about it, but decided against it and wrote about animal play instead. Now, the New York Times has featured the journal article.

Why I dismissed the article then is relevant to the recent focus here on behaviour studies and the speculations about adaptational origin that they generate. So I’ve changed my mind and now want to discuss the study and its simplest epistemological implications.

The original article, by Norwegians Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology in June, is titled “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” The Times report, by John Tierney, published July 18, is called “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?”

The Times article is unabashed fluff, containing just the “punch” line” of the original article: “Paradoxically … we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

The abstract of the original article puts it this way: “This theoretical article views children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective, addressing specific evolutionary functions and especially the anti-phobic effects of risky play.”

The article is rather thoroughly “theoretical,” indeed, relying on a review of numerous other studies, all of which (as far as I can determine) are based on observations, interviews, and statistical analyses. From these sources, the article’s authors conclude that the benefits of risky play outweigh the downside.

They report statistics showing that there are few catastrophic injuries in children’s risky play. They also note that the apparent mechanisms of risky play are similar to those employed in phobia-reduction therapy with adults. From these and other factors, they speculate that risky play is a normal part of cognitive and physical development, and that being prevented from engaging in this normal behaviour may be detrimental.

As evolutionary psychologists, the authors suggest that risky play behaviours persist in children because they have been positively selected. Despite the seeming anti-adaptational nature of risk-taking, they argue, the positive value of overcoming danger and learning to cope with physical challenges outweighs the negatives:

… Play in general would have been eliminated, or never would have evolved, unless it had beneficial results (functions) that outweighed its disadvantages (costs). The ontogenetic adaptive function of play is that children may learn skills that are important for adulthood … . Still, some of the presumably adaptive characteristics of infancy and childhood are not adaptations for later adulthood, but rather have been selected to adapt individuals to their current environment. Play might therefore be a specific adaptation relevant primarily to childhood … with both deferred and immediate benefits. …  This view is consistent with the perspective that the functional pressure of natural selection also exists during childhood.

Clear enough, as far as it goes — but does it go far enough? When I first read the original article online last month (Evolutionary Psychology is one of many journals which post at least some of their content online for free), I didn’t think so. I still don’t.

Where’s the brain scan data that shows the changes in cognitive activity between a scared four year old and more confident child, both faced with the same play challenge? What about the analysis of a broadly based longitudinal study of childhood play patterns and adult psychopathology? That is, where’s the empirical beef?

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. While I believe that there is enough to the authors’ theory to warrant fuller study, I don’t find enough in the present work to justify the kind of coverage given to the article by the Times.

So while I was engaged by the carefully empirical studies of violated fairness and stressed baboons, the subjects of the last two posts, rereading the EP  journal article hasn’t changed my opinion of it, or of its relative lack of backing.

What’s the difference between my group of friends sitting around a coffee shop table and speculating about the effects of this or that social trend on society, and a group of psychologists sitting around a faculty lounge table and speculating about the effects of over-protective parents on child development?

In the absence of “hard” data, in both cases the group relies for its conclusions on judgment informed by education and experience — and whatever assumptions and worldview happen to prevail around the table.

My Wednesday coffee buddies and I have quite a bit of education, and way more experienced than the average — we do a pretty good job explaining the world at large, and explaining away the more annoying parts of popular culture. We’re careful to avoid egregious logic errors in our analyses, and we are passably good at tying our explanations to the available observations and statistics.

In fact, we’d make a pretty good group of evolutionary psychologists.

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4 thoughts on “Risking an adaptational explanation of play

  1. I don’t know if you’d make good evolutionary psychologists, or maybe just good psychologists speculating about evolution. In order to qualify as an evolutionary psychologist, I think you’d have to have heavy leanings toward speculating about innate, pre-programmed, domain-specific structures of the mind. Sounds to me like you have a healthy appreciation for culture and ontogenetics as well. That might have you thrown out of of any coffee table discussions with their group.

    • I am confident that there are, indeed, “innate … structures of the mind.” I’m almost as confident that, like other animals, we have “pre-programmed” basic responses to the sensations we process. What’s less clear is how/if our shared cognitive mechanisms can be tied in very specific ways to an assumed but long-gone EEA.

  2. An article in The New Criterion by Stefan Beck on reviews of Mark Twain’s Autobiography makes the point that it took Twain’s Clemens exposure to danger in childhood and early manhood to produce the writer and we will have no similar quality of literature as long as we continue to shelter our children in a mediocre environment to avoid risk. Should be good for a coffee argument. 9/11 has demonstrated that trying to create a world with no dangers has its problems.
    Just to start one line of argument , it’s ironic that a culture which richly rewards self reliance and risk taking wants to eliminate risk.

  3. we will have no similar quality of literature as long as we continue to shelter our children in a mediocre environment

    That is a good idea to kick around. Try to remember to bring it up next week!

    It’s interesting that although the Twain autobio was published in November, there are several serious reviews coming online just now. The reviewers seem to have had as much trouble getting through the giant-sized grab bag as I’m having!

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