Phobias Part 1, Gelotophobia – The Fear of Laughter

“Laughter is the best medicine” is a common expression used long before research supported laughter’s role in health and wellbeing. We tend to consider a day filled with laughter as a day well spent. But laughter isn’t all smiles and giggles.

For some people, laughter is a life-crippling, shame and fear-inducing weapon that is to be avoided at all costs. Gelotophobia—the fear of being laughed at—is real, and in all seriousness, is far from a laughing matter.

What exactly is gelotophobia?

Gelotophobia (from the Greek gelos meaning laughter) describes a fear of being laughed at. It can mean that the mere sight of a smile or hearing laughter from afar is enough to elicit intense shame, anxiety and fear.

Gelotophobia occurs along a continuum in non-clinical populations. Extreme, psychiatrically-relevant and perhaps pathological gelotophobia involves social withdrawal, paranoid tendencies, poor interpersonal skills, low self-esteem and an inability to enjoy humor and laughter, which, if left untreated, could significantly impair health and quality of life in old age.

Gelotophobes not only interpret other joyous smiles as less joyful and more contemptuous than non-gelotophobes, they are considered to misinterpret laughter-related situations, auditory laughter, as well as teasing situations as ridicule, inducing feelings of shame.

Gelotophobia is thought to be caused by traumatic experiences of ridicule and shaming, from childhood or adulthood, and has even been suggested to have origins in failing infant-parent interactions. It can also co-present with mental health conditions, like social anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, one study reported that 80% of people with Gelotophobia were diagnosed with social phobia and/or Cluster A (paranoid, schitzotypal) personality disorder.

What does gelotophobia look and feel like?

An analysis of gelotophobes facial expressions suggests that if you smile at a gelotophobe, it may be returned with a frozen, tense face and asymmetrical smile of contempt, a microexpression described in the Howcast video below:

A recent article found another “freezing-like” response where geletophobes’ heart-rate fell when listening to prerecorded laughter. A wooden face and frozen heart are in line with the first published observations of gelotophobia by Dr. Michael Titze, where the term “Pinocchio Syndrome” refers to this wooden appearance (when experiencing gelotophobia) that also includes a forced, non-spontaneous movement of arms and legs in the deliberate control of body movements.

This wooden appearance has been attributed to a confirmed tendency to restrain and control emotional expressions, although those with gelotophobia and experts agree that they are inefficient in controlling their actual emotions and have a high degree of emotional contagion for negative moods and expressions.

Unpublished data also suggests a range of psychosomatic disturbances in response to humor and laughter, such as blushing, trembling, headaches, sleep disturbances and dizziness.

Characteristics of gelotophobes

In the Eysenckian PEN-model of personality, gelotophobes turned out to be primarily neurotic introverts, with added minor contributions by paranoid tendencies.

Self-assessed gelotophobes in a study of character strengths found that people with gelotophobia do not tend to endorse humor, hope, bravery, curiosity, zest and love as much as others. The outlook for those with gelotophobia looks bleak. This is not entirely the case. Their typically more pronounced character strengths, as found in both self- and peer-reports, are modesty and prudence—they do not oversell themselves.

Additionally, according to self-report, gelotophobes have greater anger proneness and more aggressive behavior, as compared to non-phobic individuals.

Who has gelotophobia?

A study involving 2,610 participants in 93 samples from 73 countries shows that gelotophobia transcends culture, to a degree. While one gelotophobic trait can be extremely common in one country, it may be relatively uncommon in another. For example, 80% of Thai participants strongly agreed to becoming suspicious of others’ laughter in ones’ presence, compared to 8.5% for Finnish participants.

It is important to note that no country was the lowest or highest agreement for all gelotophobic traits. Researchers suggest that the differences between countries may be attributable to such concepts as collectivism and individualism or independence and interdependence.

On a final note, a recent study has possibly identified gelotophobia-friendly laughter through examining responses to a computerized avatar’s laughter. The least malicious laugh was high intensity (medium being the worst), containing lip and eye movements and be fast, non-repetitive voiced vocalization, variable and of short duration. It should not contain any features that indicate a down-regulation in the voice or body, or indicate voluntary/cognitive modulation.

Considering research into gelotophobia has only literally just began in the past decade, and is truly separate to social phobia, and may be more common than we think, a future involving research-based interventions to treat and cure gelotophobia is probable.


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Image via Ollyy / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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