Geneva. Scientists in Zurich publish an extensive study aimed at shedding light on gelotophobia - or the fear of being laughed at - and discover that everyone suffers from one form or another. However, potential causes and treatments are still a long way off says the university's Dr. René Proyer, lead author of the research which was carried out in 73 countries.
Sickening realisation, singeing embarrassment, infectious flush - as an unwitting target of group or individual derision, these are all symptoms that anyone can relate to, symptoms often exacerbated by that double-sided comment: "Don't worry, we're not laughing at you, we're laughing with you!"
However, gelotophobia, or the fear of being laughed at, is no matter for mirth according to a study published recently by a team at the University of Zurich working with researchers based in 73 countries where more than 22,000 individuals answered a questionnaire issued in 42 languages.
For the first time, research has demonstrated that the phobia is something of a universal trait with almost everyone slotting onto a sliding scale of suffering. However, extreme victims face significant social challenges.
Dr. René Proyer, of the university's institute of psychology and lead author of the paper Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughted at (Gelotophobia) told Swisster: "Everyone is somewhere on this dimension. We are not talking about embarrassing moments per se. Most people don't like to be laughed at, but gelotophobia has more of a relation to paranoia - 'When I hear someone laughing, is it about me?' This goes beyond normal embarrassment," he said.
Extreme symptoms of the fear of being laughed at (a term preferred by Proyer) appear to be based on an inability to decode humour: "They often interpret the smiling of a conversational partner as a put down. They seem to have problems with these types of signals," he explained.
"They might be in a restaurant with friends and they hear someone laughing across the room with nothing to do with them and they would go to those who are laughing and demand an explanation," said Proyer.
Detailed experiments were also performed on recognised victims and a control group. "We played them tapes of assorted types of laughter and they had to rate them emotionally - happy, sad, wry and others. Gelotophobes had difficulty distinguishing different types of laughter," Proyer said.
Emotionally, gelotophobes appear cold to others. "They are lower in joy, generally speaking and experience more shame and fear," he added.
Only recognized in individual cases during the 1990s by German psychologist Dr. Michael Titze, understanding of the phobia is still in its infancy and causes remain unclear. "Titze's theory is that it is caused by repeated experiences of being laughed at as a child, which leads to that inability to understand positive laughter," he said.
"Personality and peers may also play a role, so there's a lot more to be done," Proyer said. An empirical study of children appears to be the next logical step as practically all current research has focused on adults, he speculated.
Treatment for the phobia also floats in the misty realms of theory with Titze again the pioneer. "He treats it with humour and drama therapy, helping sufferers to understand how humours works, that it's not that bad, and to appreciate it in a different way. There's no study on this yet though," Proyer stressed.
Other avenues of research are also opening up, said Proyer. "One of the things we want to concentrate on is the relation between the fear of being laughed at and bullying."
"We're not saying that those that get bullied are gelotophobes but for some [victims], harmless jokes and pranks might be misinterpreted as bullying," he added.
While media reports have stressed wide cross-cultural and national differences suggested by the report, Proyer is quick to point out that results from the questonaire have been misinterpreted.
"Everyone wants to know which is the country with the lowest scores, or differences between east or west and catholics and muslims, but this is not the topic of the paper," he said.
"These kinds of questions will form the next step, so basically these journalists are one step ahead of us," he added.