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Don’t be fooled on April Fool’s Day

If you hear something that sounds too good to be true, you might think twice before believing it, USC psychology researcher says

Cubicle filled with balloons
Don’t try this in your office: filling a co-worker's cubicle with balloons. (Photo/Disterics)

Despite the fact that fooling others on the first day of April is a long-standing tradition in certain American, European and Asian cultures, April Fool’s Day tricks are often successful. Wouldn’t you think that because the knowledge of this custom is culturally shared, the deception should be expected?

Take the time Google announced the launch of Gmail Motion, which purported to allow users to control their popular email platform with their bodies. Or when, in 1957, the BBC jokingly reported on a Swiss spaghetti harvest, which prompted hundreds of viewers to call into the station requesting spaghetti tree seeds.

However, even anticipation does not necessarily help people identify the traps and pitfalls that have been laid out to make them believe false — and often pretty implausible — ideas. This lack of immunity shows how readily humans rely on the judgment and reports of other people. Our “suspense of disbelief” shows just how much of our view of the world is shaped not by what we see with our own eyes, but by what other people have seen with theirs.

In others we trust

April Fool’s jokes remind us of our immense trust in others, making us consider how much we take their words for granted. At the same time, the nonsense we catch ourselves believing — even if just for a moment — reminds us that picking up knowledge from others should not imply that we suspend our rationality.

We can also look at the foolery of April 1 through the lens of child development and the cognitive prerequisites that it takes to “qualify” as a fool. A fool is usually someone who, once he discovers the falsehood of what he believed, slaps his hand against his forehead in recognition of his ignorance. Interestingly, young children lack this attitude. They seem oblivious to what they falsely believed and are unaware that they have revised their beliefs.

Here is a good example:

Show a 3-year-old a box that would usually contain cookies (e.g., an Oreo-cookie box) and ask her what she thinks is inside. Most likely she will say “cookies.” Unexpectedly, however, it contains something entirely different. You open the box for the child and show her that it contains, let’s say, a light bulb. Then you ask the child what she said or expected when you first showed her the unopened box.

According to studies, the child will confidently claim that she always thought there was a light bulb in the box. Children at this age erase, or undo, their own prior false beliefs and act as if they never entertained such thoughts. But unlike adults, they do not do so out of embarrassment for having erred, but with utter sincerity.

Do they just “forget” they were wrong? Forgetting does not seem to be the problem. Let’s change the scenario to say that the box at first did contain cookies, which you then replaced with a light bulb and played out the scenario with the child again. When you now ask the child what the box contained initially, she should have no problem asserting that there were cookies in the box at first. Memory for actual past events is therefore not the problem, but instead an inability to recognize beliefs that are counter to fact.

In the Minds in Development Lab at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, we explore children’s abilities to reason with premises that contradict reality, and we consistently find that young children struggle. For them, objective reality rules over any subjective perspectives on the world. This is clever because it prioritizes what is real over what could have been, but turned out not to be the case.

At an early age, children are like naïve realists who let their minds absorb the truths from reality. This might take the fun out of “tricking” young children, because it won’t really work, not because they refuse to believe you — their trust goes a long way, so they probably will believe you — but because they won’t recognize the clash between what you got them to believe and the truth that is later uncovered. Instead, they will probably think that they knew the truth all along.

Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

False beliefs

A related research question is whether the ability to recognize false beliefs in oneself and others is related to the skill of implanting false beliefs in others by telling lies. Though it certainly is not in our interest to see children endeavor to deceive others, the ability to intentionally distort the truth to get other people to endorse false representations of the world is a sophisticated skill. Those who can do it show that they understand the difference between objective reality and people’s subjective representations of it.

It would not surprise me if the two sides of “fool-ability” — the ability to recognize when one was duped and the ability to trick others by portraying a statement as true that one knows to be false — are related and emerge at around the same time in life.

Knowing this, the next time you hear something that sounds too good to be true, like that spaghetti grows on trees, you might think twice before believing it.

Henrike Moll is assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife. She directs the Minds in Development Lab, which studies young children’s cognitive development focusing on social cognition.

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Don’t be fooled on April Fool’s Day

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