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By most accounts, laughter is good medicine, the best, even. But for some people, 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 situations for fear of being ridiculed. For them, merely being around others who are laughing can cause tension and apprehension.
Until recently, such people might have been written off as spoilsports. In the mid-1990s, however, an astute 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 personality trait, known as gelotophobia. Though it sounds like an ailment involving Italian ice cream, scientists worldwide now recognize it as a distinct social phobia.
Most people fear being laughed at to some degree and do their best to avoid embarrassment. What sets gelotophobes apart is their inability to distinguish ridicule from playful teasing. For them, all laughter is aggressive, and a harmless joke can come across as a mean-spirited assault. They’re also more likely than others to assume that laughter is directed their way.
“During playful teasing, gelotophobes feel the same anger, shame, and fear that they would feel during ridicule,” says Tracey Platt, a postgraduate psychology student at the University of Zurich. “In fact, shame is at the forefront of their emotions.”
That shame is a predominant emotion explains, in part, why the trait received little scrutiny for so long. Burning shame creates more shame, and is rarely acknowledged to others. But in the mid-1990s, a patient of German psychologist Michael Titze revealed how a series of childhood humiliations had led to a morbid fear of laughter and a life of inhibition. The patient acknowledged that she had waited more than a year to tell the therapist about it.
Upon reading an account of this patient, psychologist Willibald Ruch, also at the University of Zurich, set out to measure gelotophobia at large in the 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 a 15-item version called the GELOPH, which scores people’s fear of laughter on a scale from slightly fearful to extremely fearful.
His team has since 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. (Based on such findings, scientists view gelotophobia as a personality trait, not as an illness.) In the United States, the incidence is about 11 percent.
Researchers studying the negative effects of laughter say that their studies could help psychologists and psychiatrists treat patients with social anxieties. The findings could also be used to better assess incidents of bullying at school and at work.
“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, he adds, pointing to school shootings where perpetrators left notes indicating that classmates had laughed at them. “Those experiences were so salient for them that they put it into their last letter.”
Ruch agrees with Titze’s theory that those with high fear likely have a history of being laughed at. Findings from recent studies show that additional factors may also be at play. When W. Larry Ventis, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, reviewed information collected from the GELOPH studies, he found that traumatic experiences can exert influence but don’t tell the whole story. People with a more reactive autonomic nervous system, for example, might respond with fear more readily than others. Alternatively, those who have witnessed laughter used as a put-down may more readily believe laughter translates into insult.
Platt’s studies show that gelotophobes also might have problems picking up on social cues related to smiling and laughter. “If all the cues are there–the overexaggeration 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.”
If people misinterpret playful banter at work or school and then overreact, it can 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 the program is in place, it could help gelotophobes deal with laughter. “Avoiding laughter situations is only going to make them feel worse,” she says, “so we want to set up challenges to help them recognize the appropriate cues and take control of their fear.”
Recognizing that humor is not necessarily contagious is especially important for anyone who works in or with groups of people. So is the development of this infant field of study. Ruch and his colleagues recently expanded their studies to include two other humor-related concepts: the joy of being laughed at (gelotophilia) and the joy of laughing at others (katagelasticism).
“We need to know why it is that something so human, which brings enjoyment to most everyone, is actually experienced so negatively by a few,” he says.
Susan Gaidos is a freelance science writer in Maine. Excerpted with permission from Science News (Aug. 1, 2009), a biweekly news magazine both rigorous and distinguished by its good-humored curiosity.