Cellophane over the toilet bowl. Decaf coffee in the "regular" carafe. Armed with these or myriad other schemes, an April Fools' Day prankster strikes. More than just a celebration of mischief—or a license for the boorish—the practical jokes and humor associated with this annual holiday actually play a role in the formation and maintenance of social bonds in small groups.
"Humor is a very strong way of sharing world views and expressing that you're on the same page," says Giselinde Kuipers, an anthropologist and sociologist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Kuipers's research, described in Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (de Gruyter Mouton, 2006) has revealed that one's sense of humor is not only subjective, but can vary widely based on gender, ethnicity, economic status and nationality.
For instance, cultural similarities among those in northern Europe and the U.S. may not extend into what tickles their funny bones, Kuipers wrote. In the Netherlands, U.K. and Germany a wide divide exists between what the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups find funny, although there is not much of a difference between the sexes. In the U.S. this trend is reversed: economic status has a minimal effect on what people find funny, but gender plays a significant role. Overall, European humor tends to be more ironic and brutal and generally not as playful as American humor, Kuipers says, which affects cultural views of April Fools' Day pranks.
"For most Dutch educated people, any April Fools' joke would be a little childish, distasteful and vulgar," Kuipers says. Northern Europeans are less likely to prank on the holiday than are Americans.
Regardless of one's cultural background, however, humor generally serves to bring groups together.
Laughter releases endorphins (the brain's "feel good" chemicals) as well as oxytocin, which seems to contribute to social bonding. Together, these neurochemicals are thought to promote positive relationships among people. But just as humor can bring people together, Kuipers says, it can also exclude individuals. April Fools' pranks automatically create an "in" group who are in on the joke and can thereby define itself, shutting out those who are not.
Pranks, however, are rarely billed as a group bonding experience, nor is that the perpetrator's motivation. Often, the main purpose is simply to poke fun at someone or something, Kuipers says. In this way pranks can be a relatively nonthreatening way to mock bosses, leaders and others in charge.
Jokes and pranks "are designed to show off the strength of the relationship by testing that relationship," says Moira Smith, an anthropologist at Indiana University Bloomington. "And you have to know a person pretty well to know their foibles and what is guaranteed to get their goat."
In addition, Larry Ventis, a psychologist at The College of William & Mary, says that many pranks have a mild undercurrent of aggression to them. Practical jokes are similar to the play-fighting seen in young animals. Neither party intends to inflict serious damage, and both partners typically seem to enjoy the symbolic exchange.
The joke's on two
Just as it takes two people to fight, it also takes at least two people to pull off a good practical joke. Smith's study on the role of the audience in humor, published in 2009 in the Journal of American Folklore (JAF), found that a prank's audience is an underappreciated aspect of humor. And there is a tremendous cultural pressure to pretend to understand or appreciate punch lines. "Humor is a positive moral trait," especially in the U.S., Kuipers says. "Americans even expect the president to have a sense of humor." This cultural encouragement to enjoy a good chuckle can make it all the more uncomfortable to endure the deafening hush when a joke falls flat.