Tag Archives: Play

Dogs seem to play more enthusiastically when you’re paying attention to them going at it

Man’s best friend is most playful when we’re watching, says new research.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study reports that pet dogs are much more likely to engage in play with other dogs when their owner is present and paying attention. While such results definitely go a long way towards making us all fuzzy for our furry friends, it also raises an interesting (and quite amusing) possibility: that these animals may, at least in part, put on a show for our enjoyment.

Big stick energy

The authors preface their paper by explaining that the deep attunement dogs seem to have to human interest or attention is well documented. However, we didn’t have any hard, reliable data on how this awareness impacts specific behaviors — like, for example, altering the way our pawed pals engage in play.

“We found overall that the availability of owner attention did in fact facilitate play,” says Lindsay Mehrkam, an animal behaviorist and lead author of the paper.

“It’s really quite striking that dogs who have the chance to play with each other whenever they want to, nonetheless are much more likely to get up off their butts and start playing when a person is just paying attention to them,” said co-author Clive Wynne of Arizona State University.

Human attention, the team explains, increased the frequency and intensity of behavior such as bowing, hip nudges, wrestling, chasing, or gentle bites that a dog would engage in with another dog during play.

The team carried out their experiment with 10 pairs of pets that had lived together for at least six months previously. According to owners, they all used to engage in play at least once a day (this step was taken to make sure that the dogs could enjoy each other’s company).

Each pair was then filmed as they interacted under three conditions: with the owner present, the owner present but ignoring them, and with a present and highly attentive owner (offering verbal praise and petting). Each scenario was run three times over the course of several days to ensure that the data was valid, and not flukes.

As for why this happens, the team believes that the owner’s attention could be a reward that the dogs are seeking in itself — similarly to how children playing with their parents will sometimes show off. Alternatively, the animals may have learned that playing among themselves, and playing more intensely, can lead to rewards such as an owner joining in or everyone going out for a walk.

Alternatively, the owner’s presence may act as a stabilizing agent which makes such intense play possible. Their mere presence can cause a rush of oxytocin, a hormone involved in emotional bonding and feelings of safety, which promotes play. Yet still, the human can act as an insurance policy against an all-out fight — although animals use play to strengthen bonds, it can also lead to aggression.

The fact is that right now, we simply don’t know why it happens, only that it does. The authors themselves are aware of this, and they’re already setting out on finding out.

“It’s one of those types of studies that leads to a lot more questions than answers,” said Mehrkam.

The paper “Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect” has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Training our playfulness can improve life satisfaction, help with depression

Playfulness is an acquired skill, a new paper reports.

Image via Piqsels.

People can become more playful by engaging in simple exercises, a new paper reports. The team found that greater levels of playfulness are also associated with higher life satisfaction. One week’s worth of playfulness exercises was enough for the researchers and participants to notice the effects.

The player of games

“Particularly playful people have a hard time dealing with boredom. They manage to turn almost any everyday situation into an entertaining or personally engaging experience,” explains Professor René Proyer, a psychologist at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU).

If you know someone who gets bored easily but also squeals in delight at word or mental games, or someone who’s particularly curious, chances are that person is high on playfulness. Far from making someone silly, irresponsible, or undependable, the team cites past research from the MLU finding that playful adults have an eye for detail, can easily understand and adopt a new way of looking at an issue, and have a knack for making even monotonous tasks enjoyable and interesting for themselves.

In other words, it’s a pretty good skill to have. And it’s one you can train.

The team worked with 533 participants in collaboration with researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and Pennsylvania State University (USA). They were randomly assigned to two experimental groups and one control (placebo) group. Each day for a week, they had to perform an exercise for 15 minutes before going to bed; each participant was assigned one of three exercises and was not aware that other groups were receiving different ones.

These were “think about three playful things that happened during the day”, to consider how they used playfulness “in a different way than they are used to (e.g. doing something playful at the workplace) [during the day]”, or to “reflect on playful experiences they have had over the day” either as observers or as actors. Those in the control group were asked to “write about their early memories from their childhood” for 15 minutes before going to bed.

All participants filled out a questionnaire before the experiment, at its conclusion, and on the second, fourth, and twelfth week after the intervention. The questions were designed to measure various personality traits.

“Our assumption was that the exercises would lead people to consciously focus their attention on playfulness and use it more often. This could result in positive emotions, which in turn would affect the person’s well-being,” Brauer explains.

The team reports that the exercises “increased expressions in all facets of playfulness, had short‐term effects on well‐being, and ameliorated depression” for all participants in the experimental groups. They also led to an increase in playfulness (as estimated from their answers to the questionnaire) and a temporary increase in reported well-being for the participants.

The findings warrant further research into how training to be more playful can help us in our personal, romantic, and professional lives.

“Our study is the first intervention study on adults to show that playfulness can be induced and that this has positive effects for them,” says Proyer. “I believe that we can use this knowledge in everyday life to improve various aspects.”

“This does not mean that every company needs tennis tables or a playground slide. However, one idea would be to allow employees to consciously integrate playfulness into their everyday work and, as a supervisor, to set an example for this kind of behavior.”

The paper “Can Playfulness be Stimulated? A Randomised Placebo‐Controlled Online Playfulness Intervention Study on Effects on Trait Playfulness, Well‐Being, and Depression” has been published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.


Engaging in cultural activities can stave off depression in old age

Hit the movies when you’re feeling down, or go to the theater. It’ll help.


Image via Pixabay.

Regularly attending cultural events can help fight depression as we age, a new study reports. The researchers showed that older people can cut their risk of developing depression by 32% simply by attending cultural activities once every few months. The more you do it, the better it works, too: people attending at least one such event per month lowered their risk of developing depression by 48%.

Culturally fit

The results come from a decade-long study that looked at the relationship between cultural engagement — plays, movies, concerts, and museum exhibits — and the risk of developing depression. That study, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), followed roughly 2,000 men and women, all from England and over the age of 50, for 10 years.

The ELSA used interviews and surveys to gauge both depression incidence and the frequency with which study participants attended the theater, concerts, the opera, movies, art galleries and/or museums.

The present study’s lead author, Daisy Fancourt of University College London, suggested that there are probably many positive “side effects” generated by cultural participation, all of which seem to tone down the risk of developing depression.

“For example, going to concerts or the theater gets people out of the house,” she said, “which reduces sedentary behaviors and encourages gentle physical activity, which is protective against depression,” Fancourt explains.

“It also provides social engagement, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Engaging with the arts is stress-reducing, associated with lower stress hormones such as cortisol, and also lower inflammation, which is itself associated with depression.”

These activities are mentally-stimulating, which makes them useful for reducing the risk of depression, but also help prevent cognitive decline as we age. By stimulating the mind, evoking positive feelings, and creating opportunities for social interaction, such activities help enhance overall mental health. Fancourt adds that cultural engagement can also help trigger the release of dopamine — often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter

On the whole, the end result is likely not only a lower risk for depression but also lower risk for dementia, chronic pain, and even premature death, she concludes.

“So in the same way we have a ‘five-a-day’ [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging,” she advised.

It has to be noted that the paper spotted an association, not a robust cause-and-effect relationship. Still, the results held true for all participants, regardless of age, gender, health, income, educational background, relationships with family and friends, participation in non-arts related social groups, or their exercise habits (or lack of). The results even held apparently for those with a predisposition to depression.

So why not book a ticket to a nearby play? It will help gently set you back into motion after the holidays (and all the food) and might just stave off depression in your later years. Win-win.

The paper “Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing” has been published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.