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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools

There may be a positive side to some types of pranks and practical jokes, according to anthropologists who have studied the way pranks are used in initiation rites and rituals around the world. Good pranks, they say—the funny kind that focus on human failings—can be used to help bring a person into a group, teach a coming-of-age lesson, or foster a certain kind of self-reflection. A piece in today's New York Times explains that the "Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity—only to find a sample of human feces. The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery. 'These kind of tricks are very common,' Dr. Turner said, 'and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored.'"
Once duped, say psychologists, we tend to think through the alternate ways we might have acted or the other ways a situation might have turned out, and this kind of thinking "serves to highlight your own shortcomings,” Neal Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, tells the newspaper. “A good deal of research has shown that these counterfactual insights can kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement.” —Heather Wax