4-4 | Play and Mate Preference


Play and Mate Preference
Testing the Signal Theory of Adult Playfulness

Garry Chick, Careen Yarnal, and Andrew Purrington


The overwhelming majority of play research concerns juveniles. However, a full understanding of the phenomenon requires knowledge of play and playfulness across the life spans of those animals, including humans, who play in adulthood. The authors investigate a theory of play based on Darwin’s concept of sexual selection that may account for the existence of play among adult humans. The authors hypothesize that playfulness becomes a highly desired characteristic in potential long-term mates but also that the reasons for desiring playful mates differ for males and females. The authors suggest that for males, playfulness in females signals youth and, hence, fecundity; for females, playfulness in males signals nonaggressiveness. They test these hypotheses using mate-preference data. Key words: adult play and playfulness; play and mate preference; play evolution; sexual selection

If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favour rival individuals who devote the time and energy, instead, to surviving and reproducing. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’esprit. Ruthless utilitarianism trumps, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion