“You want to play on people’s weaknesses or dislikes, but not go too hard,” said Tommy Doran, a fireman and paramedic in Skokie, Ill., who as a rookie in Montgomery County, Md., was lured into the station’s kitchen and blasted with multiple cream pies. “For me it’s just the sort of dark humor we use to cope with the job and each other. Nothing dangerous or illegal.”
Psychologists have studied pranks for years, often in the context of harassment, bullying and all manner of malicious exclusion and prejudice.
Yet practical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group, anthropologists have found — an integral part of rituals around the world intended to temper success with humility. And recent research suggests that the experience of being duped can stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.
The 1960s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman reportedly divided practical jokes into three categories. The bad ones involve vindictive skewering, or the sort of head-shaving, shivering-in-boxers fraternity hazing that the sociologist Erving Goffman described as “degradation ceremonies.” Neutral tricks are more akin to physical punch lines, like wrapping the toilet bowl in cellophane, depositing a massive pumpkin on top of the student union building, or pulling some electronic high jinks on a co-worker’s keyboard (though on deadline this falls quickly into the “bad” category).
What Hoffman called the good prank, which humorously satirizes human fears or failings, is found in a wide variety of initiation rites and coming-of-age rituals. The Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity — only to find a sample of human feces.
The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery.
“These kind of tricks are very common,” Dr. Turner said, “and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored.”
Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist at Smith College, said pranks served to maintain social boundaries in groups as various as police departments and sororities. “And you gain status by being picked on in some ways,” he said. “It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.”
In a paper published last year, three psychologists argued that the sensation of being duped — anger, self-blame, bitterness — was such a singular cocktail that it forced an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness. How much of a dupe am I? Where are my blind spots?
“As humans, we develop this notion of fairness as a part of our self-concept, and of course it’s extremely important in exchange relationships,” said Kathleen D. Vohs, a consumer psychologist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Vohs and her co-authors, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and Jason Chin of the University of British Columbia, propose that the fear of being had is a trait that varies from near-obliviousness in some people to hypervigilance in others.
The researchers had 55 men and women play a computerized cooperation game and demonstrated that participants who felt they had been burned would go over the experience in their heads, playing out alternative versions of how they might have behaved.
“Being duped holds up this mirror to people,” Dr. Vohs said, “and may in fact show them where they are on the scale” — too trusting or too vigilant. Paranoia, too, has its costs, and it can sour relationships.
Running back the tape mentally, in this case meditating on how an embarrassing event might have turned out otherwise, is known to psychologists as counterfactual thinking. “The feeling of ‘I should have known better’ is the sort of counterfactual that serves to highlight your own shortcomings,” said Neal Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. “A good deal of research has shown that these counterfactual insights can kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement.”
Those observations may not leap to mind if you just showed up in go-go boots and an Elizabeth Taylor wig to a bogus 1970s cross-dressing party. Or if you fell for the e-mail message announcing you had won an award and should forward a draft of your acceptance speech to a supervisor.
But a good prank is, in the end, a simulation of a crisis and not the real thing. And it serves as a valuable reminder that not every precious box contains precisely the treasure you might expect.