Curious Parents

There's a Word for the Fear That All Laughter Is at Your Expense

Laughter is the best medicine. Unless, that is, laughter is what's plaguing you in the first place. For gelotophobics, a mild to severe aversion to chuckling is their reality. Sufferers of this phobia think all laughter is aimed at them, and that they're always the butt of some joke. In 2016, researchers uncovered some fascinating things about what's happening in the brain of a gelotophobe.

No Laughing Matter

Getting picked on is a relatable occurrence. (We've all been to middle school.) But gelotophobes feel it tenfold. Global studies estimate that anywhere from 1.6 to 13 percent of people suffer from gelotophobia — but those rates aren't the same everywhere. Research finds fewer gelotophobes in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, where there's generally more equality in society, and more in countries where honor and shame are central to the culture.

Though culture likely plays a key role in where the disorder develops, parenting might as well. In a 2012 study, people with gelotophobia were more likely to have parents who used punishment and control tactics. And kids who were victims of bullying are also more likely to feel like laughter is aimed at them in a malicious way. According to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Humor Research, this phobia can be traced back to "early childhood experiences of intense and repeated exposure to 'put-down,' mockery and ridicule in the course of socialization."

Hope for Humor Haters

Academic research into gelotophobia only just started in 2008, so the information is limited. But we're learning. A 2010 study suggested there's an overlap between people with gelotophobia and people with anxiety. A 2016 study came up with even more interesting findings. Researchers at the University of Graz in Austria found that the brains of gelotophobes seem to process humor differently. Using EEGs, they found that gelotophobes are more sensitive to actual or supposed malicious laughter. Another experiment published in 2016 showed that gelotophobes have lower activation in their brain's reward circuits when listening to jokes, as compared to a control group.

However, there's no reason to believe traditional phobia therapy wouldn't also be effective for gelotophobes, researcher and psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich told Scientific American. Now that's something to smile about.

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For more laughter science, check out "The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny" by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto May 12, 2017

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