Coning: A Strange New Prank

Coning (or cone-ing) involves ordering an ice-cream cone at a fast-food drive-thru window, and then taking it by the ice cream instead of the cone when it's handed to you. If you do a search for coning on youtube, you can see a lot of examples of it. Even Justin Bieber is a fan of coning.

It's a strange prank because it inverts the typical logic of pranking. Usually pranks involve humiliating or one-upping a victim. For instance, a victim sits on a whoopee cushion, prompting everyone to laugh at him. But in the case of coning, the prankster pays for the ice cream cone and then proceeds to ruin his own cone by grabbing it incorrectly. The person handing him the cone isn't put out in any way. They may be puzzled by the strange behavior, but they're not inconvenienced. In other words, in coning the prankster becomes the victim of his or her own prank.

I was confused by this until (at the risk of greatly overanalyzing this) I realized that coning is essentially a form of breaching experiment. Breaching experiments are a form of experimentation used by social psychologists. They involve acting in a way that violates an unwritten rule of social behavior, and then observing how people respond to this violation. The experiments reveal that society functions smoothly because we all (usually) obey these unwritten social rules. has collected some examples of famous breaching experiments, which include volunteering to pay more than the posted price for an item, ordering a Whopper at McDonald's, or saying hello at the end of a conversation.

Breaching experiments are most frequently associated with the work of Harold Garfinkel (who died earlier this year). The NY Times, in its obituary of Garfinkel, wrote:

He wrote about so-called “breaching” experiments in which the subjects’ expectations of social behavior were violated; for example, a subject playing tic tac toe was confronted with an opponent who made his marks on the lines dividing the spaces on the game board instead of in the spaces themselves. Their reactions — outrage, anger, puzzlement, etc. — helped demonstrate the existence of underlying presumptions that constitute social life.

So all these videos of coning pranks on youtube can be viewed as examples of amateur breaching experiments. (It's good to see that today's youth has such an interest in social psychology.) And from this perspective, it's interesting to observe the reactions of the fast-food employees to the coning. Most of them simply look with bewilderment at the prankster. Some laugh nervously. But a few get quite angry, even though the prankster isn't doing anything to hurt them. In one video, as a young woman tries to grab her cone by the ice cream, a McDonald's employee pulls the cone away from her and says, "I don't know what you think you're doing, but I could actually mush this in your face." He's obviously quite mad at her attempt to violate the unwritten social rule of how to properly take ice cream cones. (via


Posted on Thu Sep 22, 2011


Having worked at a Baskin Robbins, I can tell you: ice cream in the hand is REALLY REALLY COLD.

One of my coworkers was fond of a fun gimmick. When a scoop in a cup was ordered, he would make it as usual, and jab the spoon into the ice cream. He would then present it to the customer by holding the spoon, with the ice cream and cup on top.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Thu Sep 22, 2011  at  02:43 PM
I guess some people just react angrily when they don't understand what's going on...especially if they jump to the conclusion that they're somehow the butt of a joke...
Posted by Nettie  on  Thu Sep 22, 2011  at  06:15 PM
precisely, Nettie. The thought process goes something along the lines of:

Something odd has happened.
I don't understand why this has happened.
This makes me feel stupid for not understanding.
Someone has done something to make me feel stupid.

If you're lucky, you get:

Something odd has happened.
I don't understand why this has happened.
Oh! It's a joke!
Amusement and delight.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Fri Sep 23, 2011  at  12:44 AM
Nettie and Robin, I have to disagree. The icecream attendant knew exactly what was going on. It was not 'odd' to him and he even said he knew it was a 'stunt'. Here's the problem with a food service permitting someone from grabbing a cone from the top....the customer contaminates or lets the cone drop to thee floor, then tells food service that it was the server's fault and that they have to give them another cone. The customer does the same thing again............... you see where this is going.

In this event the food server's job to make sure the food ordered and paid for arrives in the correct and safe manner to the customer.

Posted by hulitoons  on  Fri Sep 23, 2011  at  03:09 AM
Kids these days.
Posted by Maegan  on  Tue Sep 27, 2011  at  08:54 AM
I agree with Huli. Plus think of the mess created on the driveway if the coning were to take place. I'm sure the attendant has a healthy dislike of unnecessary mess, not to mention the ants that might be attracted.
Posted by Peter  on  Thu Oct 06, 2011  at  04:54 PM
I can appreciate it from the psychological aspect of the experiment, but these kids just think it's funny. No harm, no foul I suppose... but pretty lame as far as pranks go. I got up to much worse when I was a kid, but still never managed to hurt anyone or waste money.

Don't really get the point of coning. I guess I'm old.
Posted by AqueousBoy  on  Mon Oct 24, 2011  at  09:41 AM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.