Division of labor as an emergent phenomenon of social coordination: The example of playing doubles-pong

  • Benerink Niek H.
  • Zaal Frank T.J.M.
  • Casanova Remy
  • Bonnardel Nathalie
  • Bootsma Reinoud J.

  • Social coordination
  • Coupling
  • Emergence Taxonomy Group Processes
  • Interception
  • Interceptive Action
  • Joint action


In many daily situations, our behavior is coordinated with that of others. This study investigated this coordination in a doubles-pong task. In this task, two participants each controlled a paddle that could move laterally near the bottom of a shared computer screen. With their paddles, the players needed to block balls that moved down under an angle. In doing so, they needed to make sure that their paddles did not collide. A successful interception led to the ball bouncing back upwards. Importantly, all communication other than through vision of the shared screen was excluded. In the experiment, the initial position of the paddle of the right player was varied across trials. This allowed testing hypotheses regarding the use of a tacitly understood boundary to divide interception space. This boundary could be halfway the screen, or in the middle between the initial positions of the two paddles. These two hypotheses did not hold. As an alternative to planned division of labor, the behavioral patterns might emerge from continuous visual couplings of paddles and ball. This was tested with an action-based decision model that considered the rates of change of each player's angle between the interception axis and the line connecting the ball and inner edge of the paddle. The model accounted for the observed patterns of behavior to a very large extent. This led to the conclusion that decisions of who would take the ball emerged from ongoing social coordination. Implications for social coordination in general are discussed.