Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Just Kidding

Happy April Fools’ Day! Although the details behind the origins of April Fools’ Day remain a mystery, the experience of practical joking is nearly universal. My brother tells the story of a practical joke that has become legendary among his friends. It all began when a friend decided to go to the local ice cream shop (where we all worked part-time during high school) to get ice cream for the group that was hanging out together. As soon as he left, the remaining friends cooked up their prank. My brother called the shop to say that someone was going to be arriving momentarily to buy mint chocolate chip ice cream, but that they must not sell it to him because he is highly allergic. The group then jumped in a second car to witness the scene unfold, and unfold it did. A good laugh was had by all.

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What is it that makes it okay – and even funny – to engage in pranks, especially on the first day of April?

1. “Good” pranks make us all laugh. And laughter is good for our mental health. Laughter decreases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Laughter releases endorphins, oxytocin, and other chemicals in the brain that are associated with better mood. Laughter is so powerful that even if we are faking it, forcing ourselves to laugh for at least 12 seconds every day increases the likelihood of reporting higher levels of well-being.

2. What makes a prank funny? Pranks sit in a precarious place on the continuum of humor. Pulling off a good prank requires both good emotional intuition and stagecraft. If they hit the right balance, they can set off belly-aching laughter for all involved. Pranks can seed inside jokes that friends and groups share and remember forever. They are frequently part of reminiscing, and when recalled decades later, participants are likely to be amused and laugh all over again. Pranks usually take place between people who know each other. Pranks are an investment in a relationship and pulling off a good prank takes planning, imagination, and effort. Successful pranks test and tease recipients in ways that are benign and fun-loving. Psychologists and sociologists posit that practical jokes are a subtle form of “play-fighting.”

3. Pranks are about social connection and bonding. Pranks are commonly part of building and reinforcing social bonds. When done well, practical jokes connect people and promote a sense of closeness in the relationship. When pranks make us laugh together, we are likely to report elevated levels of affection and bonding for one another. The shared moments of surprise and laughter create environments that build trust, break down barriers, and promote teamwork.

4. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Pranks can also go terribly wrong. Sometimes they land like a lead balloon because the prankster innocently, but seriously miscalculates. The more serious prank failures occur when the prankster’s intent is flawed from the start. In these situations, the practical jokes aren’t jokes at all. They are mean-spirited forms of social aggression, bullying, harassment, and exclusion. The psychology of what makes something a fun-loving prank versus an act of aggression lies in the relationship between participants and the prankster’s motivation. When the outcome of the prank is hurtful instead of humorous, play drains away. It is no longer fun and games but something else masquerading as a prank.

5. Some famous April Fools’ Day Pranks. News and media outlets have a long history of engaging in April Fools’ Day pranks. In this era of misinformation and disinformation, it might seem that such pranks are happening all year long, but we can recognize that such news coverage doesn’t qualify as practical joking given the motivations and failure to make us laugh. Many real and fun-loving pranks are part of April Fools’ Days from a time gone by. For example, on April 1, 1905, a German newspaper wrote that thieves had dug a tunnel underneath the U.S. Treasury and stolen $268 million in silver and gold. The BBC conducted another famous media prank in 1957 when they aired an episode showing Swiss harvesters picking spaghetti off trees and bushes, claiming the region had had “an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop” that year.

When the practical joke was revealed, my brother and friends enjoyed all their favorite flavors of ice cream. Retelling the episode continues to make us laugh. Here’s hoping that any practical jokes that are part of your April Fools’ Day provide a dose of laughter that lasts the test of time.


Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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