It started as a quiet dinner conversation, punctuated with laughter. Soon, the rapid-fire “ha-ha-has” took on the tone of gunfire. Convinced it was directed at him, the young man got up to confront the noisy diners.
Naturally, the guests at the next table had no idea what the problem was. They were simply enjoying themselves and … laughing. Embarrassed by his outburst, the young man left the restaurant and never returned.
By most accounts, laughter is good medicine, the best even. But for some, such as the embarrassed diner, a good-natured chuckle isn’t funny at all. Morbidly averse to being the butt of a joke, these folks will go out of their way to avoid certain people or situations for fear of being ridiculed. For them, merely being around others who are talking and laughing can cause tension and apprehension.
Until recently, such people might have been written off as spoilsports. But in the mid-1990s, an astute German psychologist recognized the problem for what it is: a debilitating fear of being laughed at. Over the past decade, psychologists, sociologists, linguists and humor experts have examined this trait, technically known as gelotophobia. Though it sounds like an ailment involving Italian ice cream, scientists worldwide now recognize it as a distinct social phobia. Studies of causes and consequences of gelotophobia were among the topics presented in June in Long Beach, Calif., at a meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies.
Most people fear being laughed at to some degree and do their best to avoid embarrassment. One thing that sets gelotophobes apart is their inability to distinguish ridicule from playful teasing. For them, all laughter is aggressive, and a harmless joke may come across as a mean-spirited assault.
“They seem to have problems interpreting humor correctly,” says psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich. “They probably do not understand the positive side of humor, and cannot experience it in a warm way but rather as a means to put others down.”
Ruch and colleagues have developed assessment tools to help clinicians demarcate the merely flustered from the truly fearful. In recent years, his team has surveyed more than 23,000 people in 73 countries and found gelotophobia present to some degree in every nation, affecting from 2 to 30 percent of the population. In the United States, the incidence is about 11 percent, researchers said at the meeting in California.
When asked about recent occasions where they were laughed at, gelotophobes don’t list more occurrences than others do. They do, however, experience such events as more painful.
“The gelotophobes reported a much higher intensity of being laughed at, and for a longer duration,” says Ruch. “Also, it takes them much longer to calm down.”
Studies using cartoons to illustrate people laughing in various situations show that those with a fear of being laughed at are more likely to assume that the laughter is directed at them. Other studies using laugh tracks show that gelotophobes have problems distinguishing a happy har-de-har from a scornful snicker.
Scientists studying the negative effects of being the target of others’ laughter say such studies may help psychologists and psychiatrists treat patients with various types of social anxieties. The findings may also be used to better assess incidents of bullying at school and work, where nonphysical belittling and intimidation are commonplace.
“It’s not yet studied how many impulsive violent acts were carried out in response to ridicule,” Ruch says. Similarly, acts of revenge are often based on sensitivity to mocking and ridicule, he adds, pointing to a number of tragic school shootings where the gunmen left notes indicating that their classmates had laughed at them.
“Obviously, those experiences were so salient for them that they put it into their last letter,” he says.
It’s a shame
The funny thing about laughter is, it’s seldom about what’s funny. When Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County took to the streets and coffee shops to record instances of laughter, he found that most laughter has little to do with humor. People laugh when they’re nervous, hesitant or just making polite conversation. Most smiles and laughs occur when other people are around. In his 2000 book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Provine says laughter serves as a way to form alliances and make connections with others. For most, laughter serves as a signal for mutual liking and well-being.
But, like the young man whose dinner was ruined, not everyone feels the joy of laughter. Psychologist Tracey Platt, who ran across that man’s case in her studies at the University of Zurich, says gelotophobes tend to have a fear and shame response to laughter, even in the best circumstances.
“While most people feel joy and surprise during playful teasing, gelotophobes feel the same anger, shame and fear that they would feel during ridicule,” she says. “In fact, shame is at the forefront of their emotions.”
The fact that shame is a predominant emotion in gelotophobia explains, in part, why the affliction received little scrutiny from scientists for so long. Burning shame can create more feelings of shame and is rarely acknowledged to others. In the late 1990s, a patient of German psychologist Michael Titze revealed how a series of childhood humiliations led to a morbid fear of being laughed at and a life of inhibition. In her report, the patient acknowledged that she had waited more than a year to tell the therapist about it.
Upon reading an account of this patient, Ruch set out to see if gelotophobia exists in the real world, where day-to-day mishaps, blunders and bloopers provide innumerable opportunities for mockery, both real and imagined. He developed a 46-item questionnaire and later a modified 15-item version called the GELOPH, which could be used to score people’s fear of laughter on a scale from slightly fearful to extremely fearful. The questionnaires were also designed to identify those with shame-based fear.
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Ruch’s team also created a pictorial assessment tool similar to the GELOPH, with cartoons showing people laughing in various circumstances. One picture, for example, shows someone observing two other people laughing. Participants were then asked what the observer might be saying or thinking. While those with no fear might say something like, “Look at those youngsters, they know how to have fun,” a typical response from a gelotophobe would be, “Why are they laughing at me?”
GELOPH testing in dozens of countries shows that the fear of being laughed at is everywhere, says University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer, who directed a multinational study on the subject. Though scientists are still sifting through the data, preliminary findings show that the incidence of gelotophobia is especially high in Asia, where the concept of “saving face” is important. The results were published in the February issue of the journal Humor.
Based on the findings of the multinational study, the scientists now view gelotophobia as a personality trait, not as an illness.
“Everyone has a fear of being laughed at to a certain degree,” Proyer says, ranging from nearly no fear to an exceedingly high, or pathological, fear.
Realizing that there’s often a gap between what people say in a self-report and what they actually do in real life, the scientists also collected questionnaires from friends and family members. In addition, the team designed studies to look for behavioral evidence of people’s symptoms.
In one study, Proyer and his colleagues hired an actor to record 20 different laughs — from playful peals and embarrassed giggles to belly laughs and jeers. The researchers then played the sound tracks for 40 people who had scored extremely high or low on the GELOPH and asked them to rate the laughter as pleasant or unpleasant, domineering or less domineering.
To scientists’ surprise, those that scored high for fear of being laughed at didn’t react more strongly to the sounds of negative laughter than did those with no fear. The gelotophobes did, however, perceive positive laughter, such as hearty or cheerful laughter, as unpleasant or spiteful.
The scientists also measured participants’ moods before and after the experiment. Those with no fear of laughter reported feeling more cheerful after hearing the sound tracks, while gelotophobes reported no change in mood, the researchers reported in the February Humor.
Ruch says those findings agree with Titze’s theory that those with a high fear probably have a history of being laughed at. “If someone has always experienced laughter as a weapon, not as something you share, then all laughter will sound like negatively motivated laughter,” Ruch says.
But findings from recent studies show that additional factors may be at play. When W. Larry Ventis, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., reviewed information collected from the GELOPH studies, he found that repeated traumatic experiences during childhood and youth may exert some influence but don’t tell the whole story.
“Those types of experiences don’t clearly account for differentiating people who would be identified as gelotophobic from those who are not,” Ventis says. “This suggests that there are other significant variables which we need to flesh out.”
At the International Society for Humor Studies conference, Ventis discussed several other possible influences. People with a more reactive autonomic nervous system, for example, may respond with fear more readily than do others. And those who have witnessed instances where laughter was used to put people down may more readily believe that laughter translates into insult.
Taking a cue from laughter
Platt’s studies of gelotophobes’ emotions show that they may also have problems picking up on the social cues related to smiling and laughter. Fake laughs, belly laughs, malicious laughs and chuckles all come with their own set of cues — such as vocal tones and facial expressions — that signal whether you’re being laughed at or laughed with.
Not picking up on these cues may lead some people with gelotophobia to misinterpret playful laughter as something much more menacing, Platt says.
“If all the cues are all there, the over-exaggeration and the facial mannerisms, to say ‘I’m only playing with you and this is fun,’ then it may be fine,” Platt says. “But there’s a danger that those cues might be misunderstood by someone who fears being ridiculed, and they will say that they’re being bullied when they’re just being teased.”
In a recent study, Platt created different scenarios to simulate teasing and bullying situations where laughter frequently occurs. The results, published in the June Psychology Science Quarterly, found that gelotophobes had problems discriminating between the two.
“Teasing is ambiguous at best,” she says. “It’s play, and it’s quite sophisticated, and some people aren’t going to get that.”
While teasing is about group cohesion and being included, ridicule and bullying are about social exclusion, Platt says.
“Teasing would be dying your hair a lighter color and having your friends call you a dumb blonde,” she explains. “They know that you’re not dumb. They have a trust element in the relationship. The people in the group are saying, ‘We’re so close we can have fun with some element.’”
If someone misinterprets playful banter at work or school and then overreacts, it could make everything worse, she adds. “Then they would be reacting inappropriately, and that could make them the target of ridicule if they weren’t before.”
Platt is now developing a program based on the “mental toughness” coaching techniques that sports psychologists use to help athletes succeed and take control of situations. Once in place, the program may be used to help gelotophobes better deal with laughter.
“Avoiding laughter situations is only going to make them feel worse, so we want to set up challenges to help them recognize the appropriate cues and take control of their fear,” she says.
To provide a more complete picture of how people deal with laughter, Ruch and his colleagues have recently expanded their studies to describe two other humor-related concepts: The joy of being laughed at — or gelotophilia — and the joy of laughing at others, or katagelasticism.
“Humor and mockery are part of a complex interaction —namely, someone does something wrong and gets laughed at,” Ruch says. “But there’s also someone who laughs, and likely a bystander who maybe doesn’t do the ridiculing but approves of it. If we want to understand the phenomenon of gelotophobia in a broader sense, we need to study these different roles.”
While recent studies provide a basis for understanding gelotophobia, scientists say the research is still in its infancy.
Some scientists are now investigating how gelotophobia relates to other types of social anxiety and phobias. Others are initiating work to peer inside the brains of gelotophobes using functional MRI to see if those who fear being laughed at show neural activity more typical for “fear” rather than laughter or enjoyment.
Still others are studying the relationships of gelotophobes to see how their fears play out with friends and families or change with age.
Platt says preliminary data with young adults suggest that people might be more susceptible to being laughed at during puberty. To better understand how, and when, such fears take hold in children, she is working to complete a version of the GELOPH that can be administered to children as young as 3 to 5 years old. The studies may help teachers and administrators sort out accusations of bullying and teasing. Other researchers are studying whether gelotophobia runs in families by checking to see if gelotophobic parents have gelotophobic children.
Ruch says that recognizing that humor is not necessarily contagious is especially important for teachers and others who work with groups of people. “We need to know why is it that something so human, which brings enjoyment to most everyone, is actually experienced so negatively by a few.”
Susan Gaidos is a freelance science writer in Maine.