Gelotophobia can best be defined as the “potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.” A person suffering from gelotophobia may hear a stranger’s laugh and believe it is aimed at him or her. In extreme cases the response may be palpitations, breaking out in a sweat, or even violence. Some school shootings have apparently been triggered by classmates having made fun of the shooter. Gelotophobes have a fear of being ridiculed and unfortunately often cannot distinguish playful teasing from ridicule. Psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich has attempted to put gelotophobia on a scientific footing by surveying over 23,000 people in 73 countries. He found that the condition affects anywhere from two to thirty percent of the population. The highest incidence was in Asia where “saving face” is particularly important.
And how does one find gelotophobes? Ruch did it by devising a questionnaire that gauged agreement with statements such as “I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me,” or “while dancing I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.” I can add a few personal observations here. When I teach organic chemistry I sometimes ask students to come and solve a problem on the blackboard. Usually there is a shortage of volunteers. But then if I say, “don’t worry, nobody is going to laugh at you,” the hands start to go up. Interestingly, if instead I say “why not try it, the worst thing that can happen is that we will laugh at you,” some hands begin to wave wildly. These are the “gelotophiles,” or people who enjoy being laughed at. Maybe they could give some pointers to the gelotophobes.