Gelotophobia, No Laughing Matter

The president of the humor society, British sociologist Christie Davies, poses by a poster in Alcala de Henares, Spain,Tuesday July 8, 2008. A four-day meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies, a California-based assortment of psychologists, sociologists, linguists and other academics who poke away at funniness from every conceivable angle, is taking place in Alcala de Henares.
AP Photo
From the frontiers of mirth research, scholars offer these words of comfort: If you are mortified of dancing for fear of being the butt of jokes, don't worry, you are far from alone.

There's even a word for it - gelotophobia. Sound like a disease involving Italian ice cream? No, it's the potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.

This condition - the term comes from gelos, Greek for laughter - was among the topics discussed this week at a four-day meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies, an Oakland, Calif.-based collective of psychologists, sociologists, linguists and other academics who probe funniness from every conceivable angle.

To wit: an analysis of how punch lines are timed in Chinese jokes, a Japanese technique that measures electrical currents in people's diaphragms during a belly laugh and a Spanish look at humor and lovemaking, fittingly titled "Let's Make Laugh."

The setting for all this debate is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of "Don Quixote," the mad knight who was always good for a laugh as he tilted at windmills.

The president of the humor society, British sociologist Christie Davies, offered insights Tuesday on the state of humor in today's world.

Among other things, he said, jokes in eastern Europe were a lot better when the communists ran the show.

"Once you have a democracy with free speech, you have fewer jokes," said Davies, an emeritus professor at the University of Reading, in England. "Jokes, in many ways, are a way of getting around restrictions on what you can say. That was a very important factor in eastern Europe."

As for gelotophobia, psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich said it was first proposed as a distinct phobia - and given a name-about a decade ago.

"Studying the negative effects of being laughed at is entirely new," Ruch said.

A typical gelotophobe could hear a stranger's laugh and think it is aimed at him. In an extreme case this could provoke breaking out in a sweat, heart palpitations, trembling or simply freezing up. "So, yes, they would not be behaving properly," Ruch said.

Ruch said his team surveyed 23,000 people in 75 countries and found gelotophobia present to some degree in each nation, affecting between 2 and 30 percent of the population.

"Within Europe, Britain is on the top. Absolutely on the top," he said. The incidence in the U.S. is about 14 percent, slightly below that of Britain.

Ruch declined to say which country topped the list globally, insisting his team is trying to get the data published first in a scientific journal, but allowed that some Asian and African countries are high on the list.

At the conference, researchers from Australia, China and Japan also presented findings on gelotophobia among their citizens.

Academics from elsewhere addressed how humor can be a tool in everything from hospitals to nursing homes to prisons.

Spanish social worker Maribel Riezu Ochoa told about a program aimed at weaning inmates off antidepressants through laughter. Her group included members of the Basque separatist group ETA and major organized crime bosses.

She told of hugging one particularly angry inmate and persuading him to don goofy red plastic lips as he gave speech on his personal problems. The whole meeting-counselors, wardens and prisoners - erupted in guffaws.

"We concluded we are all devils but we are all angels, too," she said.

By Daniel Woolls