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5 Epic April Fool’s Pranks and the Psychology Behind Them

The psychology of why we fall for pranks

Last year, I wrote about some of the greatest April Fool’s pranks and why they were effective. You can read my top 5 here. Let’s look at some more epic April Fool’s pranks, and discuss the psychology behind them.

Reduction in Earth’s Gravity. In 1976 a British astronomer went on BBC radio and announced that an alignment of the planets Jupiter, Pluto, and Earth would cause a reduction in earth’s gravity. As a result, people would momentarily weigh less and suggested it would be a little like what an astronaut experiences in space. At the appointed time of the alignment, calls began to flood into the radio station, with people claiming that they had momentarily levitated or jumped and hit their head on the ceiling.

The psychological process in this prank is the power of suggestion. This is the same principle that underlies hypnosis.

Instant Color TV. In the days of black-and-white TV a supposed Swedish technical engineer said that he had determined that the fine netting of nylon stockings could bend light in such a way that their it would convert the black-and-white image to color. Thousands of Swedes immediately began cutting up stockings and putting them over their TV screens (screens were much smaller back then).

Pranks such as these (there was another one that announced that the Internet was going to shut down for two days so that it could be cleaned) are effective at fooling people because they deal with technology that we regularly use, but are complex and that most of us don’t really understand.

Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell. The fast food company played a prank by taking out a full-page newspaper ad and claiming that they had arranged with the US Park Service to buy the Liberty Bell to help ease the national debt. People were angered and outraged and both Taco Bell and the Park Service were inundated with phone calls from angry Americans.

Why would people get so worked up by something that didn’t directly affect them? For the same reason that people are passionate about their sports teams or alma maters. They are part of our sense of identity, and the Liberty Bell is a symbol of our American identity. Fool with that, and people feel a “personal” injury.

The Death of the Loch Ness Monster. The body of what appeared to be the Loch Ness monster was found on the shores of the famous lake on April 1st, 1972. The myth of the monster was true, because here was visible proof! It turns out that a zoo employee had taken the body of a dead elephant seal, shaved off its whiskers, used stones to change the shape of the face, and deposited it on the shore of the Loch.

So many people believed the story because “we saw it with our own eyes!” We put a great deal of faith into visual proof (even though we know photos can be easily altered), or in eyewitness accounts, coupled with our desire to believe in myths or the supernatural.

Dormant Volcano Erupts. This one is from last year, but it’s still my favorite, and it’s important from a psychological standpoint. On April 1st, 1974, in Sitka, Alaska, a local practical joker (and helicopter pilot) flew hundreds of old tires to the crater of nearby dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, and set them on fire. The resulting smoke caused residents to believe that the volcano was erupting.

The prank, like the famous Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of a Martian invasion, plays to long-held fears. Such fears are effective in pranking others. The April Fool’s jokes of elementary students (“There’s a spider in your hair!” Sneaking up on someone and yelling “boo!” and the like) play to our most primitive emotional reactions.

Share your favorite April Fool’s pranks.

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