If You Have This Phobia, You Literally Can’t Take a Joke

Updated: Aug. 01, 2017

Up to 13% of the population could be afraid of laughter. No joke.

laughingoneinchpunch/ShutterstockHave you ever been laughed at? Have you ever been teased, bullied, or become the victim of a stray updog? (What’s updog, you ask? Not much, dog — what’s up with you?)

If you are a human being living on Earth, the answer is yes. All of us play the butt of the joke from time to time. And for most of us, a little laughter is the miracle reaction that helps us process, deflect, and move on. Laughter helps us sort threats from playfulness and strengthens close relationships (one reason why couples who laugh together stay together). One study even suggests that people with a dark sense of humor tend to be smarter, and better emotionally adjusted than those who are easily offended. But for a rare minority of people all over the world, it is literally impossible to take a joke.

There is a word for this: Gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at. Characterized by atypical laughter processing in the brain, those who suffer from gelotophobia react to all laughter as if it is at their expense. In other words, for gelotophobes there is no “we’re laughing with you,” or even “we’re laughing near you” — it’s always “we’re laughing at you.”

“[Gelotophobes] don’t trust friendly laughter—that someone is just enjoying themselves,” psychologist Willibald Ruch, a pioneering gelotophobia researcher, told Scientific American. As you might surmise, feeling threatened by mirth has powerful social consequences. Responses can range from stress headaches, to uncontrollable trembling, to adrenaline-fueled bursts of anger. One patient Ruch observed couldn’t even sit in front of another person in public. “This person would always wait for the next bus if no seat in the last row was free. He couldn’t stand the idea that someone would sit behind him and laugh,” Ruch said.

What causes a fear of laughter to develop? Mounting research suggests that bullying—in one form or another—is often to blame. Children who grow up in households where parents are quick to dole out punishment and severe discipline are more likely to fear laughter later in life. Likewise, one intense traumatic experience of being bullied (or repeated, less-severe experiences) can lead to the disorder in both children and adults.

Culture plays a big role, too. While gelotophobia may affect as much as 13% of the global population, it is especially likely to occur in countries that favor a social culture built around honor and shame. One global survey of more than 15,000 potential gelotophobes found that people in Finland, seen as a largely egalitarian society, are the least likely to believe that people laughing in their presence are laughing at them (8.5%), whereas 80% of respondents in Thailand believed this to be true.

Ruch believes the fear of laughter could be treated with the same sort of therapies used to address other phobias, but because research into gelotophobia is still relatively new there’s no surefire solution yet. In the meantime, consider a few of these simple strategies for enhancing your sense of humor, and, if all else fails, ship yourself off to one of the nicest towns in America.