April Fool’s – no joke for some people

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April Fool’s – no joke for some people

Whether it’s putting salt in the sugar bowl or a Whoopee Cushion on the boss’ chair, April Fools’ Day is to pranksters what Valentines’ Day is to lovers: an excuse to excel.

The whole point of the Day is to get some laughs at somebody else’s expense. And while nobody likes being the butt of the joke, for some people the fear of laughter goes much deeper. Psychologists have identified a small segment of the population who overhear laughter and believe it must be directed at them.

These are people who distrust a smile, and even have difficulty with joyful emotions, says Willibald Ruch, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich. He and his colleagues use a fearsome moniker for people who fear laughter: “Gelotophobia.” (“Gelo” is Greek for laughter.)

People who fear laughter can be identified by positive responses to questions like, “I would avoid a location where I have been laughed at repeatedly,” or “When I hear a stranger laughing, I assume it’s about me.”

In light of April Fools’, it’s tempting to scoff about fear of laughter, but the syndrome has a serious side, says Ruch, because people with an extreme case tend to isolate themselves to avoid the fear.

Laughter = threat?

Laughter can be happy or rueful, triumphant or submissive, mocking or menacing. But many people laugh while they enjoy themselves in a group, which exaggerates the social isolation that can result from fear of laughter.

In one case, Ruch says, a laugh-o-phobe could tolerate the giggling and laughing of people at a nearby table in a restaurant. But when the children joined it, he told the parents off: “Teach your children not to laugh at strangers!”

This kind of behavior may stem from ridicule during childhood, Ruch says, and it could play a role among criminals who complain that “everybody is laughing at me.”

The degree of laughter phobia varies from country to country, he adds, from a low of 2 percent in Denmark, to 20 percent or so in parts of Asia. “If your self-image depends more on what other people think of you, you would tend to be more worried, and more afraid of laughter,” he says.

They found

Ruch and colleagues have created tests to explore laughter phobia. In one test, study participants are asked to fill in blank speech balloons in cartoons showing a small group with some laughter. Comments such as “They are laughing at me” would indicate gelotophobia; “That’s a good joke” would indicate a more normal attitude toward laughter.

Early studies of gelotophobia had largely relied on such self-assessments. But a study published in 2009 showed that people who see themselves as afraid of laughter also show other signs of the fear. Study participants listened to 20 samples of laughter that was happy, silly, amused, mean-spirited, contemptuous, mocking or embarrassed, and tried to identify the laugher’s mood. As predicted, laughter-phobic people “heard” more negative emotions in the laugher.

>For most people, laughter improves mood, and both the normals and those with slight fear of laughter did experience a boost in mood after hearing the laugh tracks. But the mood scores did not change for gelotophobes, and only 38 percent of them found the positive laughter to be pleasant.

Toothy horse grins at camera, mouth wide open, lips exposing upper teeth.
Horse Laugh by Bill Gracey. We have no idea what this horse is trying to say, but doesn’t it look like a mocking laugh?

Laughter phobia is not yet an official psychological diagnosis and is better seen as a “personality trait,” Ruch says. “We have the first data to show it overlaps with, but is distinct from, social phobia or social anxiety disorder. … We have considered it as an individual difference among people” that can share some features with paranoia.

Phobia about laughter is “definitely overlooked as a symptom” among psychologists, Ruch adds, yet for some people, it’s a real burden. “We’ve had Americans who say they would fly over [to Europe] if there were any treatment.”

No treatment has been proven to work, he says.

Humor me, now

We were intrigued to learn that some gelotophobes do have a sense of humor. “Many are as good as others at making up punch lines for cartoons,” says Ruch. An experimental humor training program did help “reduce the amount of fear of being laughed at,” he adds, “but for those who are intensely gelotophobic, it did not really help much.”

The problem seems less related to humor and more to the emotions that laughter can trigger, Ruch says. “When the emotions get too high, if hilarity is there, they hate it. They don’t like laughter or smiles. Behind the smile, they would assume people are judging them negatively, thinking they are ridiculous. When they are in a situation where someone seems to be laughing at them, and they can fight back, the humor is not there. But if they are not feeling threatened, they are okay.”

April No-Fooling!

– David Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

Bibliography

  1. How do gelotophobes interpret laughter in ambiguous situations? An experimental validation of the concept, Willibald Ruch et al, Humor 22, 2009, p. 63.
  2. Want to be an online lab rat for gelotophobia research?
  3. Suspect you are laugh-o-phobic?