Why We Prank

by Whatsblem the Pro

In the wee hours of the morning on April 1st, while it was still dark out, my housemate and I were taping garbage bags to the frame of someone else’s bedroom door and filling the space between the bags and the door with balloons. When we’d stuffed enough balloons into the gap to bury a person opening the door from inside the room in inflated rubber, we high-fived and went to bed wreathed in smiles. Many of the balloons were long sausage-like cylinders; some had been twisted into more explicitly suggestive shapes and decorated or written on with a Sharpie; they bore slogans like “Your Magic Friend While He’s Away,” and “ASS-2-ASS! ASS-2-ASS!

Around dawn, a tiny hullabaloo of confusion, cursing, laughter, and savage balloon-popping took place in the hall outside my door. I woke up long enough to have a good haw-haw, and went back to bed to finish sleeping.

By the time the morning had progressed to a fit hour for decent people, my co-conspirator and I were the only ones home, and retribution was in full effect. I got out of bed first; there were notes taped to the walls over the kitchen and bathroom sinks: “LANDLORD CALLED, WATER OFF UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” I turned the taps; nothing. I knew the landlord would call my landline in the event of a real outage, so of course I simply turned them on at the wall and did my business. . . and since my accomplice – still new in our house – had no idea, I turned the toilet and sink off again after using them, and played dumb when she got up. Fifteen minutes later she was fleeing to a friend’s place to use the bathroom.

The next day, like a Third World child stepping on an unexploded land mine long after the war has ended, she dipped a spoon into a container marked ‘SUGAR,’ and stirred a heaping helping of salt into her coffee.

Some people decry pranks as unnecessary, disrespectful cruelties, but pranks among friends – especially friends who live together harmoniously – are often sources of bonding and group history-building. They serve as test of and testimony to our confidence in each other as intimates, and give us something to laugh about together weeks, months, and years later.

There’s a similar phenomenon to be found in the way Australians are prone to casually referring to their nearest and dearest as ‘cunts,’ a practice which never fails to horrify uninitiated Septics (aka Americans), who typically wither or bristle at the drop of the dreaded ‘C’ word. The first time I got the C-bomb dropped on me by an Aussie, he was smiling warmly and handing me a free beer with a “welcome home” twinkle in his eye, and I still stopped jaw-slung in my tracks, thinking did he really just call me a cunt? Once I got over the initial shock, though, I realized that I was being welcomed into the fold and hailed as a brother. It was only up to me to pass the test by not being offended. Not a prank per se, but a cultural marker that acts a lot like one.

Psychologists have been studying pranks for some time, usually in the very negative light of malice, bigotry, and exclusion, but anthropologists have found that practical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group rather than drive or keep them out. The kind of frat-boy hazing that sociologist Erving Goffman characterized as ceremonial degradation turns out to be an integral part of rituals in human cultures throughout the globe, serving to temper the initiate’s sense of success at gaining entrée in a splash of cold humility. Being duped and brought low even for a moment can prompt a powerful self-reflection and a new alertness to the world; this may in fact be the looked-for metamorphosis that the hazing is meant to induce in the neophyte.

In other words, the difference between what goes on during Rush Week on Fraternity Row, and what goes on in the course of ten thousand other prankish social gluing rites all over the globe, is mainly a matter of form and not function. The dangerously drunk college boy getting paddled and peed on is being ushered into a society and acknowledged as having a place there in a more aggressive, juvenile, irresponsible, and homoerotic manner than a newlywed couple getting a shivaree, but the idea is the same. . . and in both cases the victims are being put through a positive metamorphic process that draws them closer to the culture administering it, rather than simply being embarrassed, inconvenienced, victimized, and/or degraded for its own sake.Image

Dr. Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Smith College, says these kinds of induction-into-the-culture pranks help elevate the victim even as they seemingly demean and degrade. “You gain status by being picked on in some ways. It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.” According to Wynn, the vast majority of ritualistic pranks played on newcomers are sending a message – that the pranksters like you and want to recognize you as one of them – and are demanding a response in the form of good-natured acceptance.

Hazing rituals have another effect that they share with one-on-one pranks – and outright scams – that have nothing to do with being welcomed into a new circle of people; they can trigger a feedback and correction mechanism for the victim’s own defense instincts. The shock and embarrassment of being the patsy leads to a self-evaluation and adjustment of our vigilance against the depredations of others; it may heighten our paranoia, but paradoxically, being duped can also prompt us to be less vigilant than before.

“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,” says consumer psychologist Kathleen D. Vohs, co-author of Feeling Duped: Emotional, Motivational, and Cognitive Aspects of Being Exploited by Others.

Take off my pants too, get a free cup of coffee

Take off my pants too, get a free cup of coffee

“Being duped holds up this mirror to people,” says Dr. Vohs, “and may in fact show them where they are on the scale” between total obliviousness and hyper-vigilance, thus helping them to form a more realistic view of themselves and adjust their defense mechanisms to be more effective in exchange relationships.

The mirror Dr. Vohs refers to is something psychologists call “counterfactual thinking,” in which the duped victim goes over and over the events that led to them being duped, playing the scenario out in their heads in different ways in an attempt to figure out where they went wrong. The intense self-examination often leads to better perspective and even full-blown epiphanies that improve the victim’s skill at dealing with others and successfully distinguishing good information from bad information, and good deals from not-so-good deals.

“There appears to be stable individual differences in the motivation (called sugrophobia) to avoid being a sucker,” says Dr. Vohs. “High sugrophobes will be vigilant and skeptical of potential deals. Low sugrophobes may not even realize in some instances that they were duped. The aversive reaction to feeling duped stimulates counterfactual ruminations that may intensify sugrophobia but also aids in extracting useful lessons.”

Other researchers have offered evidence that the insights gleaned from counterfactual thinking can have a major positive impact on behavior that enhances our social interactions.

Now consider Burning Man. In the absence of commerce, in an environment of abundance in which everything (or nearly everything) is given freely, the motivations for duping others become less obvious. With no money or trade goods in play, decommodification allows us the luxury – or possibly creates the dire hazard – of pranking and being pranked with only our bodies, our preconceptions, our ingrained habits, and our personal pride at stake.

Transformative experience, anyone? Just let go. Black Rock City is a place where you can willingly suspend your disbelief and judiciously allow yourself to be delightfully misdirected, bamboozled, flim-flammed, monkey-talked, and played in a thousand different ways. Be alert for the lessons you might learn thereby. . . and pass them on to others.

Hey, what’s that on your shirt?