Monday, April 12, 2021

The impish impetus behind April Fooling

| April 1, 2021 1:00 AM

Hopefully today’s front-page feature made you laugh, even if you weren’t tempted to fall for it.

If you’re a longtime subscriber, you’ll remember some of the less obvious ones — proven by ardent callers to our newspaper every April 1. At minimum, I’ll bet you looked for that absent jump page (hint, it’s never there).

Yes, we laugh at those calls. Usually, they’re laughing with us.

While making fun of others isn't funny, making fun together is the delicious appeal of April Fools' Day.

What fool elevated the practical joke to near-holiday status? No one is sure; theories include New Year’s move from spring to January after switching to the modern calendar — making “fools” of mistaken revelers — or pranking traditions from Ancient Rome’s Hilaria festival on the spring equinox.

Those Romans must’ve been a riot.

Laughter is good for body and soul, easing stress, aiding heart health, and releasing endorphins linked to happiness and social bonding. But why do we prank, more than just joke? What’s so appealing about fooling others?

Some sociologists write that practical jokes are a subtle form of “play-fighting,” testing others’ awareness in what’s typically a benign manner. When sincerely light-hearted, it can also be a compliment. Friends prank when they feel close, believing a relationship is strong enough to withstand the jest. In this sense, the goal and predicted outcome is to laugh together.

All in good fun.

But some practical “jokes” aren’t jokes at all; they’re a thinly disguised form of social aggression which psychologists say is rooted in poor self-esteem, an often subconscious need to elevate oneself at the expense of another. Then it’s not so much “harmless fun” as it is Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is a German word without English equivalent. It means experiencing joy at someone else’s misery. A large body of psychological research suggests humans have a dark tendency to rejoice at the failures of others, even if we don’t realize it. Feelings experienced when a colleague is fired, when someone else loses a game, when an envied classmate fails an exam fall under this umbrella.

Under the “social comparison theory” when self-esteem depends less on personal goals than on social context, others’ failings become a ready source for feeling superior. People with low self-esteem have been shown to be more susceptible to Schadenfreude.

That’s certainly not our April 1 reporter, April Fuhl’s, annual intention. Laughing at ourselves together, now that’s a bonding experience reminiscent of the famous money tree from April Fools gone by.

“Exactly where on Prairie is that, Mr. Editor? I’d like to, um, drive by.”

The gods too are fond of a joke. — Aristotle

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Sholeh Patrick is a gullible columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email