Why the April Fool’s joke is losing its importance: lies and fake news

fading tradition
Lies and fake news: why the April Fool’s joke is losing its importance

Opinions differ on the April Fool’s joke tradition. In a society that has outsourced jokes, jokes lose their meaning, says cultural scientist Gunther Hirschfelder.

© Jens Kalaene / Picture Alliance

April 1st has lost its meaning. “The April Fool’s joke will either change or disappear,” predicts cultural scientist Gunther Hirschfelder.

April 1st is a popular target. But are lies really the same as lies? And how do they differ?

Unclear origin

Even with the tradition of the April Fool’s joke, opinions differ. There is no clear origin story. However, according to cultural scientist Gunther Hirschfelder from the University of Regensburg, one assumption is widespread: a calendar reform by Charles IX. in France it is said to have been the trigger for the annual day of lies. In 1564, the monarch moved the new year from April 1st to January 1st. All who, out of ignorance or tradition, continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1st were derided as fools.

theory of mind

When do we actually start lying? This requires certain mental prerequisites, explains Philipp Gerlach, Professor of General and Social Psychology at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg. “If I’m lying, not only do I have to intend, I also have to know what I know. And I have to know what the other person knows.” It’s called “theory of mind”. It describes the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to see things from the other person’s point of view. According to Gerlach, most children develop this characteristic before they start primary school.

Black and white lies

If you go deeper into the matter, differences in lying become apparent. The most important is the intention: “There are different types of lies. In English, for example, a distinction is made between “white” and “black lies”, the white and black lies,” says psychology professor Gerlach. The black ones are malicious lies—those that enrich oneself at the expense of another person.

White lies are generally understood to be socially acceptable untruths. Gerlach: “Suppose my wife had the worst day of the year and was still at the hairdresser’s. This moment is not the best opportunity to say that I don’t like the haircut.” Then one does not lie to harm or to enrich oneself, but to help the person.

April Fool’s Day or Fake News? Untruths circulate in large quantities, especially on the Internet. Psychologist Thilo Hartmann sees a cultural framework on April 1 that exceptionally justifies deliberate lying: “If that doesn’t happen every day and we agree that it’s okay to present someone or make fun of someone that day, then it is That’s okay too and for most people it’s funny.”

In principle, however, lying should be viewed very critically, according to psychologist Gerlach. Those who lie pretend false intimacy to their counterparts, often in order to make themselves better. “And if you lie often, you won’t be believed anymore. In other words, you risk your reputation in order to achieve something lucrative in the short term,” says Gerlach.

Today’s April Fool’s joke

April fools’ jokes are often politically incorrect, coarse and at the expense of individuals. But the joke has also broken through hierarchies in the past centuries, says cultural scientist Hirschfelder. “100 years ago the housemaid was still the victim of the April Fool’s joke. However, she wasn’t allowed to do anything to her landlord for a long time.” It looks different today.

Modern society has practically outsourced humor, says Hirschfelder. “We have delegated the production of jokes and jokes to a professional reflection elite, and that’s what I call Mario Barth or something.” Comedians are now responsible for making jokes. “That means we’ve gone from a society that’s funny itself to a society that buys jokes.” Hardly anyone dares to make jokes themselves.

This is one of the reasons why the April Fool’s joke is in crisis. “I have the impression that we are at one of the usual turning points in culture, where we lose a whole range of cultural patterns and gain new ones,” says Hirschfelder. This also applies to public holidays such as Pentecost or Friday the 13th, which many fear.

The April Fool’s joke was popular well into the 21st century, including in the media. In times of digital meetings and social media, however, it is only partially up-to-date, emphasizes Hirschfelder. “The April Fool’s joke will either change or disappear. But like everything else in culture, it cannot remain as it is.”


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