Very funnySome say pranks are really nothing but pathetic, sophomoric attempts to gain attention at the expense of others, but pranks have consequences, too. There's a sharp line between harmless fun and full-out psychological warfare, but even the most benign prank—gluing quarters to the sidewalk, for example—can be counterproductive. Repeatedly playing the same trick on the same people, or even subjecting them to a variety of practical jokes can be every bit as counterproductive as those over-the-top PsyOps campaigns. The chronic prankster may find himself isolated and ostracized, or in extreme cases, explaining his antics to a judge.

Some pranks can be chalked up to youthful indiscretion. When I was in eighth grade, I decided to connect the phone line to my guitar amplifier. My mother was surprised—and less than thrilled—when her phone conversation could be heard echoing throughout the neighborhood from the amplifier, which I had placed in an open window. I don't recall the specific consequences of that episode, but I don't think they were positive.

Other pranks are squarely in that over-the-top category. Years ago, a friend's sister was subjected to the extreme methods of her soon-to-be ex-husband; it was a bit like The War of the Roses, only it wasn't a movie. Apparently, his military experience and training prompted him to rig small booby traps in their home, so his wife was never sure what sort of nasty surprise might result from opening doors, drawers, or cabinets. These tactics later proved counterproductive in divorce court.

When I worked in the tech industry, a coworker used a combination of low- and mid-tech methods to satisfy his prank-lust. Large water-filled syringes, powerful rubber bands, small pieces of wood to hold them open, and string attached to desk drawers were used to booby-trap the workplace. When the victim sat down and opened the center drawer of the desk, the syringe would discharge its contents in the victim's lap. A slightly more tech-oriented caper involved making an invisible incision in the victim's phone cord, then snipping the wire to the handset's microphone. The next phone call resulted in a perfectly ordinary experience for the person answering the call, but complete silence for the one making it. As you might expect, these techniques where counterproductive as well. In the end, they resulted only in angry people, and pariah status for the perpetrator.

Sometimes, pranks are mainly the result of boredom; they're an attempt to enliven otherwise mundane activities such as grocery shopping. When she was younger, I frequently tormented my daughter during our trips to the grocery store. One of my favorite techniques involved falling behind, then attempting to catch up with her while dragging one of my legs and shouting, "Daughter! Daughter! Wait for me!" This was counterproductive in the long run, because eventually she simply refused to go shopping with me.

One guy thought he had discovered the joy of embarrassing his wife at the supermarket by making loud, crowlike cawing noises. After a time, he realized this method could be used in more practical ways, such as encouraging her to finish her shopping so he could go home. He began to rely on the conditioned-response factor: simply whispering caw in her ear was enough to drain the blood from her face, and almost always abbreviated the shopping experience. Eventually his wife filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

Pranks can be a lot of fun, but generally seem far more comical to the perpetrator than the victim—something I try to keep in mind whenever I feel the urge to try something new on the people soon to be formerly known as my friends.


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