Gelotophobia & Autism


Many autistic people have gelotophobia—a severe fear of gelato!


“Uhm, no. I actually love gelato” you will probably say. And you might further insist, “I am not a gelotophobe!”

You probably are though! But no worries; you are in good company!


Gelotophobia

So what actually is gelotophobia? Pronounced ji-lat-ê-fo-bi-ê-agalos is a Greek term meaning ‘laughter’, and phobia, as you probably know, means ‘fear’. So no, gelotophobia doesn’t actually have anything to do with gelato—or indeed any other type of ice cream.

Gelotophobia is a social phobia,* generally described as a fear of being ridiculed or laughed at. But it’s actually more complicated than that. And considering many of us have alexithymia, you wouldn’t necessarily consciously experience it as fear. It’s not necessarily a phobia that preoccupies the mind constantly, but it may often come up in social situations.

* The conviction of being ridiculous, strange, peculiar, etc. in the eyes of one’s social partners, and the subsequent expectation of being ridiculed, is what distinguishes gelotophobia from social phobia in its broad definition.((The fear of being laughed at: Individual and group differences in Gelotophobia))

Gelotophobia is the misinterpretation of laughing or smiling of an interaction partner as a personally aversive, deprecatory, and denunciating act.

In the place of what may have been intended as playful teasing or joking, the individual perceives the laughter and smiling of another as a personal vendetta aimed at putting them down.((Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder))

It has been suggested that this fear and shame-bound anxiety is a long-term consequence of intense, repeated and traumatic personal experiences of:((Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder))((The Pinocchio Complex: Overcoming the fear of laughter))

  • Having been laughed at in the past.
  • Having been the target of mockery.
  • Not being taken seriously by others.

Laughter is generally contagious, and it tends to lead to positive emotions (joy, exhilaration, etc.), but of course, no one likes to be laughed at or made fun of. The latter leads to negative emotions. Most people dislike being laughed at to some degree, and so gelotophobia constitutes a spectrum, ranging from having no fear at all, to borderline, to pronounced or extreme gelotophobia.


Causes

Gelotophobia can generally be traced back to childhood:

This fear can be traced back to early childhood experiences of intense and repeated exposure to “put-down,” mockery and ridicule in the course of socialization.((Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at))

However, gelotophobia can in principle emerge in various stages of life:

  • Infancy — Development of primary shame failure to develop an interpersonal bridge (e.g. unsupportive infant–caregiver interactions).
  • Childhood/youth — Repeated traumatic experiences of not being taken seriously or being laughed at and/or ridiculed (e.g. bullying).
  • Adulthood — Intense traumatic experience of being laughed at and/or ridiculed (e.g. mockery).

Gelotophobia in autistic people

Ironically, the way I started this answer may have invoked gelotophobia in some people. If I did, my apology!

Many autistic people do indeed experience mockery growing up, as well as trauma. Due to the fact that many of us have challenges understanding when a joke has been told—even at higher levels of intelligence and general functioning—combined with sensitivity to emotional distress, there is a high co-occurrence of gelotophobia and high-functioning autism.

Research from 2011 by Andrea C. Samson et al. indicates that 45% of autistic people tested are gelotophobes, whereas only 6% of neurotypicals have gelotophobia. This is the highest percentage ever found in the literature!((Teasing, ridiculing and the relation to the fear of being laughed at in individuals with Asperger’s syndrome))

In a paper from 2018, Geraldine Leader et al. point out that previous research found that:((Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder))

So autistic people have gelotophobia more often than those with personality disorders and eating disorders, which of course suggests that gelotophobia is an important—yet understudied—phenomenon in autism. The research from 2011 also indicated that people with Asperger syndrome are:

  • Less able to laugh at themselves (gelotophilia), but;
  • Enjoy laughing at others (katagelasticism) to the same extent as controls do.

Playful banter

Laughter at times can have cruel intentions which can hurt people. But when friends playfully mock each other, it can be a form of prosocial behavior, where the person being playfully teased can then respond with humor, which tends to lead to more positive emotions and prosocial behavior. A person with gelotophobia, however, does not engage in a positive way, but instead reacts with anger or hurt, which prevents any prosocial benefits from occurring.

Why does this happen? Well, research from 2008 by Tracey Platt indicates that people with gelotophobia are unable to distinguish between the positive experience or interpretation of being laughed at from episodes of negative ridiculing and deprecation.((Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelotophobes react differently?)) Failure to distinguish between playful banter and actual mockery and/or bullying can thus lead to a negative interpretation of well-intended actions.

Like research from 2009 by professor in personality psychology and diagnostics Willibald Ruch et al. indicates, gelotophobic individuals do not tend to perceive laughter and smiling as signs of friendliness or expressions of mirth and positive affect (i.e. the tendency to experience positive sensations, emotions, and sentiments).((How do gelotophobes interpret laughter in ambiguous situations? An experimental validation of the concept))

Alternatively, gelotophobic individuals experience all forms of laughter and smiling from their social partners as malicious and as a means to put them down.((Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder)) So playful teasing and intentional ridicule are thus interpreted through the same schematic representation; being the butt of criticism and derision.((Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelotophobes react differently?))


Fear response

According to research from 2008 by Willibald Ruch and René Proyer, gelotophobes are irrationally and inconceivably preoccupied with the belief and the subsequent fear that they are being laughed at by others in all interactive domains.((Who is gelotophobic? Assessment criteria for the fear))

The aforementioned research from 2008 by Tracey Platt’s indicates that gelotophobic people’s emotional response pattern consists primarily of shame, anger, and fear, whereby even laughter of a pleasant nature is perceived uniformly as negative. These emotional response patterns come up regardless of whether the laughing situation is a playful scenario or under mean-spirited circumstances.((Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelotophobes react differently?))

Additional studies have reported that gelotophobes become very vigilant upon encountering episodes of laughter from others.((Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelotophobes react differently?))((The Pinocchio Complex: Overcoming the fear of laughter)) They become easily suspicious, as they are of the assumption that any ambiguous laughter is directed at them in a threatening, intimidating manner.((Fearing humor? Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at: Introduction and overview))

Psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Michael Titze—who is a pioneer in therapeutic humor and gelotology (the study of laughter)—refers to the effects of gelotophobia as the Pinocchio Complex:((The Pinocchio Complex | HumorCare e.V.))

The Pinocchio Complex is a phenomenon that refers to those with gelotophobia. 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. This is for instance the case when a mouse is confronted by a snake and has no chance to either disappear or attack the snake.

The fight or flight responses provide the opportunity to attack or flee. These are adaptive mechanisms that have survival value. But there is a third scenario that unfolds when there is no chance to run or fight: that is to develop a state of muscular tension.

So it’s the freeze response as a result of gelotophobia that Titze characterizes as the Pinocchio Complex. I don’t know if I agree that people with gelotophobia necessarily never learned to appreciate humor and laughter positively, however. Here is Martin’s perspective:

I don’t know if I would necessarily qualify for a gelotophobia diagnosis, but when Natalie started writing this article, she engaged in playful banter with me about the meaning of gelotophobia, and I got distressed and dysregulated. So when Natalie stated earlier that the start of this post may ironically bring forth gelotophobia, it’s actually a warning based on how I responded to her playful banter.

What surprises me is that, whether or not I am fully conscious of it, a level of fear must be coming up, because I get angry, and usually fear lies at the foundation of anger. In this case, fear of being ridiculed. But I wouldn’t say I haven’t learned to appreciate humor and laughter positively. I love humor and wit, and I laugh making people laugh with humor. I am not humorless or grey, which almost seems to be Titze’s implication.

So despite appreciating humor and laughter around me and in myself, sometimes I do misinterpret playful banter for mockery. When I think I am being mocked, I feel shame, I suppose because it’s a subconscious reminder of all the times I have been mocked in the past. But then I also feel ashamed when Natalie explains to me that she was just joking, and how could I misinterpret her intentions so severely? Why would she ever mock me? That’s just not what she is like. So it’s irrational,* and being irrational makes me feel inadequate, which brings about shame. This is where being self-critical comes in.

Willibald Ruch and René Proyer state that gelotophobic individuals believe that all laughter is aimed at putting them down and making them feel they are a ridiculous object worthy of derision—regardless of whether there is a rational reason for this derision, or if it amounts to mere paranoia.((Who is gelotophobic? Assessment criteria for the fear))

To read about self-criticism, have a look at the post below.

Self-compassion & self-criticism

Hypervigilance towards laughter

The underlying fear of being ridiculed results in hypervigilance, which includes an exaggerated focus on detecting activity (e.g. always trying to be aware of whether or not you are being ridiculed, and searching for indications thereof). This hypervigilance increases anxiety, and the whole endeavor can easily leave one exhausted. The more exhausted you are, the less likely you are to engage in social interactions. Michael Titze writes in his 2009 paper:((Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at))

Gelotophobes constantly fear being screened by others for evidence of ridiculousness. Thus, they carefully avoid situations in which they feel exposed to others.

Gelotophobia at its extreme, therefore, involves a pronounced paranoid tendency, a marked sensitivity to offense, and a resulting social withdrawal.


Gelotophobe physiology

Gelotophobes also show physiological reactions towards laughter. In a study published in 2014, biological psychology professor Ilona Papoušek et al. found that individuals with gelotophobia showed heart rate deceleration in response to laughter:((Laughter as a social rejection cue: Gelotophobia and transient cardiac responses to other persons’ laughter and insult))

Individuals with gelotophobia showed marked heart rate deceleration in response to the laughter stimulus, possibly indicating a “freezing‐like” response.

They also found cardiac responses to anger provocation (with the use of overtly insulting statements), which indicates heightened aggressive anger in response to cumulated social threat.((Laughter as a social rejection cue: Gelotophobia and transient cardiac responses to other persons’ laughter and insult))


Am I a gelotophobe?

To see whether you might have gelotophobia, check if the following describes you:

  • You avoid social situations in order to avoid being laughed at or ridiculed.
  • You worry that others feel that you do not engage with them in a warm, friendly way, or;
  • You worry that others deem you humorless.
  • You struggle to know what to say to people in a “natural” way.*
  • You have low self-esteem due to feeling incompetent in social situations.†
  • You feel your body getting tense when people are talking and laughing. As a result, your movements may appear wooden and stiff (the Pinocchio Complex) rather than being relaxed and natural.
  • You think you are not a lively person, are not spontaneous, and do not experience many joyful moments in your daily life.*
  • You worry that you look ridiculous to others.

* Of course, this may also be due to often co-occurring alexithymia or autism itself.
† This may be due to personal traumas and self-criticism, both of which seem to be quite prevalent in autism.

If at least 4 of these statements apply to you, you probably have gelotophobia. If you want to be more certain, perhaps you can find the GELOPH<15> somewhere, which is a survey instrument on gelotophobia, consisting of 15 questions. I have not been able to track down where you can do the test online, but Psychology Today has an article up which features a slightly altered* version of the GELOPH:((Afraid of Being Laughed At? You’re Far From Alone | Psychology Today))

  1. When people laugh in my presence I get suspicious.
  2. I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me.
  3. When strangers laugh in my presence I often relate this to me personally.
  4. It is difficult for me to make eye contact because I fear to be assessed in a disparaging way.
  5. When others make joking remarks about me I feel paralyzed.
  6. I control myself in order not to attract negative attention so I do not make a ridiculous impression.
  7. I believe that I involuntarily make a funny impression on others.
  8. Although I frequently feel lonely, I have the tendency not to share social activities in order to protect myself from derision.
  9. When I have made an embarrassing impression somewhere, I avoid the place thereafter.
  10. If I did not fear making a fool of myself I would speak much more in public.
  11. If someone has teased me in the past I cannot deal freely with him from that point on.
  12. It takes me very long to recover from having been laughed at.
  13. While dancing I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.
  14. Unless I’m careful, I’m at risk to attract negative attention and appear peculiar to others.
  15. When I have made a fool of myself in front of others I grow completely stiff and lose my ability to behave normally.

Rate yourself on a 4-point scale for each question. What I have not been able not find is what the threshold score is to qualify for gelotophobia. Let me know if you know where to find this information!


What you can do about having gelotophobia, I might cover in a second post if there is interest. But a good start is to be mindful of your responses to others and the feelings that come up, and to show self-compassion in general, so you may learn and grow, rather than putting yourself down based on perceived deficits.


This post was originally written by Natalie Engelbrecht & Martin Silvertant
on Embrace ASD: Gelotophobia & autism | Embrace ASD

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8 Comments

  1. This is and always has been a big deal to me.

  2. My question is, could you sort of outgrow this? I was bullied horribly in school (diagnosed as an adult), and for a long time I was very afraid of people laughing around me, just as this article describes. But with time and with some good social experiences and with gaining more confidence by knowing that I’m not broken after all, it’s softened.
    I’m still sensitive to being embarrassed, ridiculed, laughed at, etc, but it’s not as bad as it was.

    1. Author

      You can certainly outgrow it! The interpretation of people laughing as a personal mockery is just a projection. Meaning that, when you are mindful and in tune with your ego, you can diminish the projection, which ultimately leads to a diminishing of gelotophobia.

  3. I think I used to have this really bad and kind of outgrew it? I do know that when people smile at me, it makes me uneasy. I see smiling as a threat for some reason.

    1. Author

      You can indeed outgrow it by becoming aware of your projections, or more secure as a person (which effectively means you project less. Feelings of unease when someone smiles and feeling threatened by it are also projections.

      Which begs the question what is underneath those projections. Did you feel threatened in your youth by a person who tends to smile, or were you ridiculed and laughed at?

      There is also research that indicates autistic people are more likely to interpret neutral faces as threatening. When we have endured trauma, we become hypervigilant of threats, and so even a neutral expression or a smile can feel threatening.

  4. I’m certain that most people have a fear of being embarrassed, ridiculed, laughed at.
    I think that maybe you mean that sometimes some people can be over-sensitive and interpret others action being directed towards them. This would order on paranoia.
    Maybe more autistics have paranoia, or just maybe some are being laughed at more than I normal in society, For these people, being afraid of this because of a history of being teased, laughed at and excluded is a natural response.

    1. Author

      Shame and guilt are the only two emotions that are learned rather than inherent. I don’t know if most people have a fear of being embarrassed, ridiculed or laughed at (I would be curious to see research on this), but if they do, they acquired this fear.

      This is crucial, because gelotophobia is linked to our traumas. And since many autistic people have a traumatic past, you see a high degree of gelotophobia.

      And you are right, it is indeed a natural response.

      1. All teasing + bantering is a destructive behaviour. It always can cross boundaries easily, including accidentally, + its boundaries are never reliably visible the same to everyone. It should never be defended or rationalised as natural, because it always exerts some leverage towards the evil of conformity. It is a quick unintellectual way for groups to test whether they find someone a conceptual threat, with the test passed by sameness + matching social instincts – obviously dangerous for us.

        All interaction is more rational, kinder, + safer without it. It is rational to choose to interact with conscientious serious mind + rationality. Since teenage I have held that to be the moral choice, + called it an ANTI-RIBALD POLICY. courtchange.wordpress.com/anti-ribald-policy/

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