What this simple TikTok prank taught me about work

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

There’s a hilarious prank making the rounds on TikTok and Instagram where people pretend to have their hands stuck in glasses or vases.

What’s exactly so funny about that? Well, it’s best if you watch it for yourself — as it’s both so genius and so dumb it’s hard to believe it works — but let me explain the premise just in case.

Basically, the prankster pretends their hand is stuck in a container of sorts and calls out for help. A friend, partner, or parent shows up, eager to help their treacherous loved one. They first try pulling, and when that doesn’t work, the prankster takes out the ‘stuck’ hand to grab a bottle of soap and then quickly inserts their hand back in the jar.

You’d think the person being pranked would immediately realize the hand wasn’t stuck… but they don’t. Some clips even show pranksters taking their hands out of the jar several times without their helpers realizing what’s going on.

[Read: How Netflix shapes mainstream culture, explained by data]

Now, the reason why these pranks are so funny to watch is that it seems so unfathomable that anyone would fall for it. When I first watched one, my immediate conclusion was: these must be gullible people. But after watching a few and seeing everyone falling for it, I realized it’s just human nature to fall for deception like this.

There are actual studies — not just pranks — on how easy it is for us to miss the most obvious clues or changes without realizing. A famous example is the “Door” study, where behavioral scientists replaced a person asking test subjects for direction in mid-conversation. A full 50% of the test subject didn’t realize a completely new human being was standing in front of them.

If you’re still doubtful, there’s the classic Whodunnit? clip. I won’t spoil it, but in this 2-minute skit, you can really see how easy it can be to miss painfully obvious changes.

But why am I blabbering on about pranks and old experiments? Well, I find these things so fascinating because they reveal something about people, and our work is more often than not about people.

Our co-workers, clients, and audiences are people, and I assume you respect them and consider them to be wise, smart, and intelligent. But even the smartest people have blind spots, can be easily pranked, or miss apparent truths (or at least apparent to you because you were already aware of them).

What these pranks teach me is that if a user makes a weird mistake using your interface, or a client doesn’t understand your briefing, or a co-worker falls for a scam, you might want to think twice before you consider them gullible, stupid, or unintelligent.

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Published January 14, 2021 — 16:21 UTC

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