August 27th, 2010
11:30 AM ET

Afraid of being laughed at?

It's a funny name for a concept about laughter: gelotophobia is the fear of being laughed at. "Gelo" means laughter and "phobia" means fear in Greek.

But the concept is not a mere amusement for researchers, who are developing tools to study a fear that, in extreme form, can lead to real social isolation. A new study in the European Review of Applied Psychology looked at the French version of short questionnaire for identifying gelotophobes, finding it a useful and reliable tool for finding people who fear the laughter of others.

With this fear, you have negative reactions to laughter from other people - even strangers - and believe it's intended to put you down, the study said. Psychologists have described gelotophobic people as becoming suspicious when they hear other people laughing, and assume it's directed at them even if there's no good reason for that.

Like other phobias, the fear of being laughed at can have serious negative consequences in a person's life. German psychologist Michael Titze has described how this fear can make a person lonely and distrustful and frequently feel shame.

The new research looked at 218 people from the French part of Switzerland and 245 people from Quebec, Canada. Study authors found that fear of being laughed at was independent of the participants' age, sex or marital status, and that average scores for gelotophobia were similar for the two groups of participants.

Titze coined the terms gelotophobia as well as "Pinocchio Complex," referring to how people get "stuck" when they are so afraid that laughter is directed at them. He described it in a 1996 interview with Humor & Health Journal:

These people have never learned to appreciate humor and laughter positively. I see this condition as being analogous to Pinocchio who was a marionette or puppet made of wood. In the physical sphere, many emotions manifest themselves in our muscles. We communicate by the way we carry and present ourselves. When fear is experienced every being gets stiff and develops muscular tension.

Recent studies have found that gelotophobia is related to social anxiety, but not to specific fears (such as fear of heights or animals). Bullying may relate to gelotophobia also, as some people who are afraid of being laughed at experienced bullying in the past.

Treatment of gelotophobia has not been extensively studied, and there is no empirically tested intervention for it, the new European study said. But some researchers such as Titze have found benefits with therapies involving helping people become more comfortable with humor.

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