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Dorothy's Wisdom on the True Ingredient of Play

The secret to how to turn work into play

How to turn work into play? Although people have generated many replies to the question, I think the elucidation of Dorothy Dinnerstein on the issue is the most brilliant one.

Dorothy was a former psychology professor of mine. When I was attending her seminars at Rutgers more than 20 years ago, my mind was exposed to many of her unique viewpoints, ranging from seven dimensions of cognition to feminist psychology expounded in her book "The Mermaid and the Minotaur." Her most valuable lesson, I believe, was delivered at her seminar on work and play.

According to Dorothy, human activities, regardless of how diverse and intense they are, can be divided into two types: Work and play. Although people tend to view them as two separate types of endeavors, work and play are intimately related and share many similarities. For example, both are goal-directed activities with physical and mental operations as well as carrying emotional arousals. However, there is one essential factor separating play from work. What is it? Most people immediately answer that play includes the element of winning, because playing cards and playing sports all seem associated with winning as their purpose. Are you sure? Just image a situation where a NBA player and a young boy play together, winning would be a torture for the athlete. A satisfying emotion such as pleasure cannot be defined as the essence of play either, because the feeling of pain is also a component of play.

To understand the core of play, Dorothy engaged us in thinking about human activities that were not commonly associated with play, such as wars and other military conflicts, debates between politicians, falling in love, child-rearing, political movements, among others. She helped students discover how alike those activities were with recreational pastimes. She questioned students: Which factor characterizes all of them, such as playing sports games, playing lottery, waging wars and other military conflicts, participating in political debates or protests, falling in love, and/or child-rearing? Put in another way, what is the essential ingredient of play? We realized that it is a right amount (not too much or too little) of uncertainties of the process and the perceived ability in dealing with the uncertainties that represent the nature of play. On the other hand, work feels boring or stressful because it lacks either necessary uncertainties or the sense of control in handling them. Consequently, how to turn work into play becomes so obvious. I have to admit that after the seminar, my views of many activities became different. While, wars, political activities, or similar engagements often carry noble slogans to make them sound like serious works for higher causes. For the participants, those undertakings may be just various types of play in magnanimous pretexts.

Our conversations often continued after class and they often turned to the early years of Dorothy’s psychological career. She studied at Swarthmore College for several years under the mentor Wolfgang Kohler, father of Gestalt psychology. “He was not only very intelligent but also very handsome,” she once talked about him in a fond tone. When Dorothy studied for her PhD at the New School for Social Research, she worked as a research assistant for Solomon Asch, a pioneer in social psychology. She was involved in assisting several Asch’s classic experiments on conformity where he asked participants to indicate which of three comparisons lines was identical in length to a standard line. There was only one true participant. All others in the group intentionally announced an incorrect choice one by one before the participant got his/her turn. Dorothy told me that although the social situation (that is, the incorrect majority) influenced individual judgments, there were many exceptions. In one instance a young woman was so upset with the incorrect majority that she dragged several of them to the front and demanded them to use a ruler to measure lengths of the lines.

Dorothy Dinnerstein in Middletown, NY (1988)

Photo: Dorothy Dinnerstein in Middletown, NY (1988).

Dr. Dorothy Dinnerstein died at age 69 in a single-car accident in New Jersey on Dec 17, 1992. Although she was typically remembered as a contributor to feminist psychology and cognitive studies, I think that her take on the issue of work and play also merits a great appreciation. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to know and learn from her.

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