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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 19-May-06


Friday 19-May-06

Practical jokes, schadenfreude and group membership

One of the joys of life is in having fun with other people without them knowing. Practical jokes are a creative way of doing this and I hope never falls prey to the politically correct brigade who would ban all such pranks.

Practical joking is a delicate art. Whilst you can mystify and confuse, you don't really want to annoy or upset your targets too much -- except perhaps for the arrogant and biased idiots who desperately need taking down a peg or two (in which case having an escape route ready can be a good idea).

Why is this so much fun? 'Schadenfreude' is a delightful German word that means 'pleasure in the discomfort or others' and is a driving motivation of practical jokes as well as why we enjoy stories of others receiving their comeuppance.

Even undeserved failure can give us sneaky pleasure as it tells us that, in the long list of the superior and inferior, we are one rung higher up the ladder. We define much of our sense of identity through our relationship with others and the success and failure of both ourselves and others says much to us of our relative status.

Practical jokes also act as a ritual test for group membership. If you take the joke in good humor then you are admitted to the in-group (or cement your position there). Group membership criteria can include using humor and the enactment of practical jokes, displaying ingenuity and courage that that is of value in asserting and defending the group.

Where practical joking fails is where the real motivation is to gain status, to dominate and to harm others with malicious intent. It can also be unwise where it is played on people who will not later appreciate the joke (and maybe turn the tables at a later date). One simple test is to think: if the other person played a practical joke on me, would I mind or enjoy the jest.

Whilst practical jokes can be delicious fun, there is also a deeper social side. This shouldn't stop the game, but it can also help to understand what else might be going on.

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