Vol 10, Issue 4, November 2023

The Goldilocks Principle: Balancing Familiarity and Novelty in the Selection of Play Partners in Groups of Juvenile Male Rats


Ham, J. R., & Pellis, S. M. (2023). The goldilocks principle: balancing familiarity and novelty in the selection of play partners in groups of juvenile male rats. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 10(4), 304-328.  https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


Like many mammals, rats frequently engage in play fighting as juveniles, an activity that influences the development of socio-cognitive skills. Most studies that assess play are based on staged dyadic encounters, implying that some average quantity and quality of play are sufficient to produce these developmental effects. However, there are individual differences, with some rats not only preferring to play more, but also to have more physical contact than others. Given that rats have individual differences in play, it raises the possibility that rats might express these preferences when playing in groups. To determine whether rats form partner preferences, trials were conducted in which a focal rat was given the opportunity to play with three partners of varying familiarity. One partner was a cage mate, another was housed on the other side of a transparent and perforated divider and so familiar, but not a prior play partner, and the third was a stranger from another cage. A total of 36 focal rats, between 30-36 days of age, were tested and video recorded in 20-minute trials following 2.5 h of social isolation. Focal rats expressed a preference for neighbors over both strangers and cage mates, indicating that balancing between familiarity and novelty influences social play partner preferences. Mechanisms by which this preference might have been established, such as dominance relationships, weight differences, and congruency of play style, were investigated, but none were correlated with the preferences expressed. This group dynamics perspective provides a novel approach to studying play, and more generally, provides insights into social exploration and decision-making.  


Dominance, Partner choice, Partner preferences, Play fighting, Rat group play, Rough-and-tumble play