Why Can’t We Play?

A friend of mine is very playful and open natured. She likes to sing, dance, and play around, often times even in public. Others around her have become nervous because of the way this might disrupt the social order and draw negative attention from bystanders. This seems strange if the behavior is mostly positive and well-meaning. I suspect that this could be explained by a relative deprivation of confidence.

Normally, people are afraid to act playful in public because of the potential to draw negative attention. We adopt formal behaviors that are sometimes dry and emotionless. These norms of behavior and interaction become standardized in the public space. Breaking such norms seems to aggravate some individuals. This aggravation may stem from a sense of unfairness that emerges from this difference in behavior.

It may seem strange to view this as unfairness, but consider what motivates or demotivates such playful behaviors. We are motivated to behave playfully because it is fun. We are demotivated to act playfully because it is shamed on as immature or childish by others. When we become inhibited by the shame and insecurity pushed by the world, noticing that others have a level of confidence to act playfully despite it being against the rules can feel unfair. Why should that playful person be able to have fun while I sit here feeling inhibited and unhappy?

Consider a future where everyone has fMRI machines installed in their houses as common appliances. How unfair is it that you do not have an fMRI machine in your house? Probably you do not care. Now imagine if only white people had fMRI machines in their houses. This suddenly seems much worse, even if a person lacks an fMRI in both scenarios. This sense of unfairness is often called relative deprivation, the idea that we are more deprived than other people. In contrast, there is absolute deprivation, which is purely lacking the fMRI machine in this case. We aren’t bothered by lacking a household fMRI machine, but instead we are bothered if the situation of society is unfair.

This applies to confidence as well. When others have more freedom to play and have fun, while the rest of us are pressured to behave formally and feel social stress, it seems unfair. This might cause people to shame playful behavior even when such behavior should be pleasant and desirable.

It is important to note that playful behavior can also be disruptive for people who are trying to focus on a difficult task. Though, you could imagine that most cases of people being shamed for playful behavior are not in such a context. If you act playful inside of a grocery store, likely people will shame you even when the consequences of your playful behavior do not harm others directly. It is arguable that playful behavior reminds people of the limitations and deprivations they are “forced” to live with. This may cause the people who feel deprived to lash out and punish the playful people, to keep them in line. The social norm is regulated by people’s fear to be publicly punished.

This likely stems originally from parents punishing their children for playful behavior in public. In this case, punishment of public play can make sense because children have very little sense of the social rules, boundaries, and do not know how to respect other people. As we become adults, we learn a lot more about the ethics of social interaction in public, so it may be possible that we can have more adultified forms of play that are allowed in public.

To punish and suppress play is a generalized response and in reality it might be more useful to learn how to play in public more responsibly. Rather than shaming play, it might be useful to shame inappropriate forms of play that are decided to be inappropriate based on the negative consequences of such behavior.

Unfortunately, the insult people feel from relative deprivation of confidence and happiness might be a form of pain that drives us to label play as inappropriate. Rather than mandate all people to deprivation, it might be good to lift those who are trapped by relative deprivation so that they can have fun too. Public forms of play might change how being in public space makes us feel. It may even make people enjoy the public.

This is a bit of romanticized fictional future, but public space could become a medium for cultural change in the form of play. The same way that memes propagate internet groups, memetic behaviors or general memes could propagate the public spaces. Some form of this already occurs at festivals or other public events. Imagine strangers come together and spontaneously start to sing along to some song. Another common case is where strangers might start dancing together on the public streets, which is often seen in videos on social media.

There are probably many issues with such an idealistic vision, like that many people do not think about what specific kinds of play are appropriate or not. Though, that is something that would likely evolve as we progress into such a new world. Banishing play from our repertoire of public interactions could be too broad of a solution, since play is really an umbrella of both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

I’ve recently started offering Psychology Coaching if you are interested in having 1 hour sessions to discuss, understand, and attempt to solve the issues you face.

. . .

If you found this enjoyable, consider joining the Patreon! I’ve been posting detailed experience reports with my adventures using prescription ketamine. Also. someone sent me an EEG device to collect data on ketamine-induced brainwave changes which I’ve started posting there too. I also post secret mini podcasts. You can find the publicly available podcasts here by the way!

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