What One Prank Taught Me About Human Nature


Very often one of the defendants on Judge Judy will offer some absurd scenario as his defense. They’ll claim, say, that the plaintiff keyed his own car to get the defendant in trouble with the law. Inevitably Judge Judy will turn to the plaintiff and go through the motions of asking him if such a thing was true. And just as inevitably, the plaintiff will deny it, leaving Judge Judy to turn to the defendant and yell, “Of course he didn’t key his own car! Do you know why? Because he’s not psychotic!”

Every time I’ve seen this play out on the show—and it’s been more than a few times—I sit back and cringe. That’s because I have done something similar, and I’d like to think that I’m not psychotic. When I was a student at Bucknell University (which is, incidentally, absolutely dreadful) there were two roommates on my hall named Galen and Alex. I’m using their real names in the hopes that, many years later, they’ll acquire some sort of closure from this article. Until now, I never revealed to either of them that they were prank victims. Sorry, ladies!

Galen and Alex did not get along at all. They weren’t constantly fighting, but they clearly were very different people who were trapped in one room, which naturally led to tension. One night I stopped by to hang out with Galen while Alex was away. After a bit Galen stepped out to use the restroom, leaving me alone in their room for a couple of minutes. I glanced at Galen’s desk and saw that she was reading H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine for class. In a fit of satanic genius, I leaned over, tore the last page out of the book, and put it in my pocket.

I knew several things would come of this. First, it would be the most maddening thing possible to come to the end of the book, only to discover that there was, in fact, no end to it. I could only imagine Galen frantically turning the paperback over and over before tearing her room apart in search of the page that somehow “fell out.” Second, I knew that The Time Machine is one of the most common books available. Surely our library—open twenty-four hours—would have a copy. If not, there was no shortage of copies on campus. (Nowadays, she’d be able to download it in seconds.) She wouldn’t be screwed, she’d be inconvenienced in an explicable way. Yes, it was a dick move. No question. And it was destroying someone else’s property, which is a whole other level of distasteful.

What happened weeks later took the prank from obnoxious to memorable. In fact, if the scene played out in a movie, I doubt it would pass as believable. I was once again hanging out with Galen, along with our hall mate Tom. I noticed that Alex’s half of the room was empty. “What happened to Alex?” I asked Galen.

“Oh, she moved out,” Galen explained. “She was completely crazy.”

“Crazy how?”

“Like she would do all sorts of things and then deny doing them. And like, who else would have done them? It was very juvenile and very annoying.”

Amazingly, my having ripped out the last page of The Time Machine didn’t enter my consciousness even at this moment. It had been an impulsive move and I’d forgotten about it as soon as I’d done it. What Galen was describing simply sounded odd to me. “Like what?” I asked her.

“Like I was reading a book for class and she tore out the last page. And she acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about, but of course she did it. I mean, I didn’t tear it out myself and no one else could have.”

I wish I could say, “It took everything that I had not to burst out laughing at that instant.” But that would be false. It was a moment so transcendent that instead I wanted to cry. It was so perfect, I briefly felt myself transported to the Platonic world of ideals. So I smiled and nodded and, perhaps, began to glow.

Galen was correct in that she was describing the actions of a crazy person. She was simply incorrect in figuring out that the crazy person was me. I immediately imagined the argument that must have transpired between them: Galen insisting, with correct and absolute certainty, that Alex had done this due to being crazy and malicious. And then Alex responding, with the exact same correct and absolute certainty, that she had done no such thing and Galen was imagining things due to being crazy and malicious. It was like a perpetual motion machine with both sides being totally certain of what was happening—and both being wrong.

This taught me a very important lesson about interpersonal psychology. Human beings gravitate toward the simplest solutions: A bad action occurred; I know a bad person; therefore, said bad person is directly and/or indirectly responsible. Galen was certain Alex acted to spite her even though she had never harmed her property in any other way. If she can be rude, then she can tear pages out of books is the logic—the faulty logic. Because there are many people, after all, who are rude. But only a subset of them would do something so egregious, especially if they would be caught so easily.

This psychological trap has profound consequences in an office setting. If a team delivers poor work, then, all things being equal, a disliked person will be the first to get the blame. This can be a useful tool in terms of shifting blame—but it can also be the kiss of death if it happens to you.

Many of us enter the workforce thinking that we are bad at office politics or that we can work hard and stay above the fray. That is not an option. Many—if not most—people perceive their colleagues emotionally and not objectively. Their minds won’t register your good qualities but will blow your bad ones out of proportion. It will lead to frustration on your part as you are judged unfairly—just as Alex must have been incredibly frustrated trying to scream her innocence to Galen.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Recognize that managing relationships is often as important as being a hard worker—and if you haven’t learned how to do so, get thee to a lending library.