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The origin of fools

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Are chimps capable of intentional foolery?


Humans aren't the only ones who have a knack for fooling others: Witness the deceitful cuckoos and the yellow-bellied lizards. But humans, and perhaps chimpanzees as well, are the animal kingdom's consummate foolers. In fact, scientists say our capacity for deception and deceit may well be related to the size of our brains - and reflect an essential characteristic of higher-order thought.

Just in time for April Fools' Day, here's a look at the evolutionary roots of foolery, as well as the origins of the annual custom and history's best April Fools' jokes.

A foolish mind
The evolutionary advantages of camouflage and mimickry can be seen going back millions of years - ranging from insects that look like plant leaves to octopuses that can make like a plant and leave. But the animals that play tricks on others of their own species are few and far between, said University of Chicago primatologist Dario Maestripieri.

"Some of the primates like to tease other individuals and make fun of them," he told me. "Possibly they're the only animals that do this - poke fun at others just for the fun of it. Young animals do it to adults. It's not really deceptive. It's more like teasing behavior."

Chimps and other apes also seem to be adept at deceiving each other for societal advantage, Maestripieri said.

"The deception, when it's intentional, is something that comes with other complex cognitive skills. It's what people call 'theory of mind,'" he said. "To be able to deceive someone else implies the ability to know that they think, they believe. That's something that only the higher primates have."

For example, female chimps (and even rhesus monkeys) will sneak around to have sex with younger males when the senior, dominant male isn't looking. A lone chimp will fool the others in its troop to save a cache of food all for itself.

Some research has linked the capacity for deception with brain size - and specifically the size of the neocortex, the area of the brain involved in higher-level thought.

"It seems that primates that have a larger brain engage in deception more than others," Maestripieri said. "But I have to tell you this is controversial, because when you study deception, you're studying a series of anecdotes. What might look like [intentional] deception to one researcher wouldn't look like that to another."

Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, agrees that it's hard to judge whether primate deception qualifies as intentional foolery - let alone the kind of April Fools' prankishness so familiar to humans.

"To find a prank funny, one needs to understand how the world looks through other people's eyes - so that you can fully appreciate how stupid they must be feeling by now!" he wrote in an e-mail. "Technically called 'theory of mind,' that's just what most primate deception lacks.

"The interesting thing in my primate evidence is that, even so, primates do use deception a lot, to achieve their own ends, presumably without having any idea how their victims feel," he continued. "Instead, they learn the tactics by experience. They just find out what works and - since they learn very fast in social contexts - only need one hint and they have got the trick."

Whether or not chimps have a theory of mind is a hot topic of debate among psychologists and biologists. In humans, theory of mind and its impairment have been linked to all sorts of phenomena ranging from altruism and religious experiences to autism and delusional beliefs.

The bottom line is that humans are on a higher level when it comes to getting inside someone else's head - and then using a good prank to mess with it.

A foolish day
The evolutionary beginnings of institutionalized foolishness are lost in the mists of time, but some historians set the origin of April Fools' Day back in the 1500s. According to this version of the tale, medieval New Year's celebrations in France were traditionally held in late March, climaxing with a final round of parties on April 1. Around the time of the Gregorian calendar switch, King Charles moved the timing for the big New Year's bash to January. Some people, however, continued to celebrate in April (or were fooled into doing so) - thus leaving themselves open to ridicule as silly old fogies.

There are lots of holes in this story, as The Straight Dope points out. In fact, the more you think about it, the more the story sounds like a centuries-old April Fools' hoax itself. A more sensible explanation would be that April Fools' Day was a carryover from the Romans' Hilaria Matris Deum festival, which was held on March 25, the time fixed in the ancient calendar as the spring equinox.

In his masterwork, "The Golden Bough," anthropologist James George Frazer said "a universal license prevailed" during the Hilaria carnival:

"Every man might say and do what he pleased. People went about the streets in disguise. No dignity was too high or too sacred for the humblest citizen to assume with impunity. In the reign of Commodus a band of conspirators thought to take advantage of the masquerade by dressing in the uniform of the Imperial Guard, and so, mingling with the crowd of merrymakers, to get within stabbing distance of the emperor. But the plot miscarried. ..."

Licentiousness? Disguises? Harmless plots? Now that sounds like an April Fool's party! But seriously, there may have been an elemental linkage between spring's arrival and the inclination to let your hair down - and trip up someone else in the process. Some even see parallels between April Fool's Day and Holi, the Indian festival of colors that is traditionally held in March or April.

For more April Fool's lore, check out this Snopes.com analysis - which backs away from judging the veracity of the various claims made for the origins of April Fool's Day.

A foolish list
It might seem like a fool's errand to rate the top 100 April Fool's Day hoaxes of all time, but that's exactly what the Museum of Hoaxes has done. The BBC's report on the 1957 Swiss spaghetti harvest leads the list - and Snopes.com seems to concur with that opinion, calling it "arguably the best media-generated April fools' joke."

Decades before The Onion made fake news into a franchise, the BBC's "Panorama" program staged an elaborate TV report about happy Swiss farmers plucking strands of spaghetti from trees, thanks to science's triumph over the dreaded spaghetti weevil.

Other entries with a scientific bent include claims that the Alabama state legislature had set the value of pi at exactly 3, to conform with the Bible ... that a critter called the hotheaded naked ice borer was preying on penguins from below ... and that a 1976 planetary alignment would make earthlings feel lighter.

Such intricate hoaxes make the run-of-the-mill April Fools' jokes listed by the BBC's h2g2 Web site and the April Fool Zone seem positively pedestrian in comparison. Last year, msnbc.com users told us about their own favorite office tricks, and "Consumer Man" Herb Weisbaum contributed his own list of work-related hoaxes. But let the prankster beware: A recent survey indicated that most marketing executives frowned upon April Fools' jokes, and only a slim majority of ad execs thought pranks were appropriate.

Just be glad you weren't taken in by one of the 10 worst April Fools' jokes of all time. The list, assembled by the Museum of Hoaxes, runs the gamut from fake disaster reports to the unfunny fakery perpetrated by Saddam Hussein.

In 1999, I fell victim to a fake April Fool's report about Yugoslav hackers, put over on me (and other journalists) by Art Bell's "Coast to Coast AM" radio talk show. Ever since then, I've been leery about anything with an April 1 time stamp. But in honor of the day, I'll give a little more latitude for frivolity in the comment section below.

For an extra helping of April foolery, check out this roundup of scientific spoofs from 2004.

Update for 1:15 p.m. April 1: I delved further into the evolutionary roots of deception and foolery with St. Andrews' Richard Byrne as well as Maureen O'Sullivan, a psychology professor at the University of San Francisco.

First, the follow-up with Byrne, conducted via e-mail. We started out with the idea of "theory of mind," which humans are thought to possess and chimps may or may not have. To refresh your memory, theory of mind refers to the idea that you have an understanding of another entity's mental state - which means you can appreciate the power you have over them when you fool them:

Q: I had thought your view was that at least some of the great apes (e.g., chimpanzees) did possess a theory of mind. And I've heard from other quarters that some of the deception methods used by chimps appear to anticipate how the deceived chimp might react under certain conditions.

Byrne: "Both true, in the sense that I am sure chimpanzees do things, including deception, that require them to understand in some way what others are thinking or aware of. And all other great apes come to that. However, most of the primate deception I analysed didn't reach these heady heights, and could have been learnt without any such understanding, including most of the chimpanzee cases.

"I do think, however, that these great apes (all the time) and we humans (most of the time) can manage to take account of others' thoughts, knowledge and feelings without actually working it out in a logical, probably conscious way. If we are pushed, someone might ask 'Why did you do that?' and we can come up with these logical answers, 'Because I thought she knew he loved her...,' but I'm not convinced that we go through those steps all the time in everyday life, and I'm not sure that non-linguistic animals like chimpanzees have any equivalent.

"So, to me, theory of mind is two things: the fast, efficient, primitive way of solving theory-of-mind problems in everyday life and the lab, which chimpanzees share, and the slow, logical, probably conscious, 'mentalizing' that depends on language."

Q: Does this imply that there is something qualitatively different about the way the human mind works vis-a-vis the use of deception (admittedly, as entertainment or practice as well as a survival skill)?

Byrne: "Yes, it certainly would. Whether that difference is the critical one for finding pranks funny, I just don't know. It might be, if the mentalizing about other's embarrassment or discomfort is what makes us laugh, or it might be that chimpanzees just aren't motivated to persecute others subtly, they might just prefer to beat 'em up!"

Then I spoke with O'Sullivan, who has studied human cheating and lying for years (purely as an academic pursuit, of course!). She noted that there's a kind of pleasure felt by the fooled as well as the fooler after a well-played joke.

"Sometimes people like lies, they like deception," she said. "It's like when we're at the movies. We like suspending disbelief. We also like tricksters: You find them in every culture."

Many experts, including the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, have contended that children learn best in an environment of tenuous equilibrium - a sense that you're not quite on top of what's going on but still under control. "Being surprised jogs you into increasing your information store," O'Sullivan said.

Experiencing harmless foolery also serves as a dress rehearsal for dealing with more serious deception - touching something elemental in our trickster brain. A similar explanation has been put forth for "why we seek out an eek."

"There's a kind of mastery of what we fear," O'Sullivan said.

As for the fooler, there's an obvious pleasure that accompanies pulling off a successful deception. That probably goes back to the evolutionary mists of time, when our ancestors' brain chemistry provided a reward even before the first taste of a pilfered piece of mammoth meat. Psychologists call that "duping delight" - and the subtle signs of that delight, at seemingly inappropriate times, can sometimes unmask a liar.

Now that we're well into April Fools' Day itself, I can point to a couple of examples of well-played pranks on the Web. This BBC video spot about migrating penguins is fantastic.  And Google has come up with its own plan to go to Mars. (Considering that Google's co-founders are really, truly sponsoring a moon prize, and that others have talked seriously about one-way expeditions to Mars ... is the Virgle business model that far-fetched?)

On our own Web site, Forbes Traveler contributes this guide to Martian tourism. Have you seen other examples of April foolery? Go ahead and add them as comments below.