By Susan Gaidos, Science News
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.