For most people, the sound of laughter is a pleasant experience. Even when we’re not taking part in the merriment ourselves, just hearing other people laugh can boost our mood. Generally speaking, laughter is contagious—the more we hear others laugh, the more we want to join in on the fun.
However, some people find the sound of laughter very unpleasant. When they hear other people laugh, they don’t feel a boost in their own mood. Rather, they’re overcome with anxiety—fearing that others are ridiculing them. Psychologists even have a name for it—gelotophobia, or the fear of being laughed at.
Given the role that laughter plays in the building of friendships and romantic relationships, it stands to reason then that gelotophobes—those afraid of being laughed at—will have difficulties getting intimate with others. But where does gelotophobia come from? German psychologists Kay Brauer and René Proyer believe the roots of gelotophobia lie in the attachment style we develop in early childhood.
Most infants develop a secure attachment with their mother and other caregivers. They come to trust their needs will be provided for, and this sense of trust in others carries into adulthood relationships with friends and lovers.
However, not all infants learn that they can trust their caregivers to be there when they need them. There are many reasons for this, including postpartum depression or excessive stress in the mother’s life on the one hand, and the child's hypersensitivity or excessive fearfulness on the other hand. At any rate, these children grow up with an insecure attachment style that impacts their ability to build and maintain satisfying intimate relationships with other people.
Insecure attachment comes in two types, anxious and avoidant. Anxiously attached children are fussy and demanding around their mother, probably because they’ve learned that’s the only way to get her attention. As adults, they act in a clinging and demanding manner toward significant others, and while they fear losing any relationship they may form, they soon destroy it through their jealous and overbearing behaviors.
In contrast, avoidantly attached children learn to self-soothe, and they show little interest in whether their mother is nearby or not. As adults, they’re fearful of getting too close to other people. Some are lone wolves their whole lives, but many form superficial friendships and sexual relationships. However, if you push too hard to get emotionally intimate with an avoidant, you'll simply drive them away.
Previous research has demonstrated that gelotophobes—those who fear being laughed at—experience fewer close relationships and more extended periods of loneliness in their lives than the average population. There’s also some evidence that insecure attachment style is related to gelotophobia. It was this association that Brauer and Proyer examined in a study they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For this study, the researchers recruited over 500 adults, aged 18 to 80, who responded to a series of surveys. The first questionnaire was a standard instrument used to assess gelotophobia, and it included questions such as: “I get suspicious when others laugh in my presence.”
The second questionnaire measured the participants’ experiences with close relationships, focusing in particular on insecure attachment styles. Questions like “I’m afraid that I will lose my partner’s love” assessed anxious attachment, while questions such as “I prefer not to be too close to romantic partners” measured avoidant attachment.
Participants were also asked if they had ever been in a romantic relationship. As expected, high levels of gelotophobia were strongly correlated with the likelihood of being a lifelong single.
Further analysis showed that insecure attachment explained the association between gelotophobia and lack of experience with romantic relationships. Specifically, those with a fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia) as well as a fear of losing any intimate relationship they might develop (anxious attachment) were far more likely to have remained single up to that point in their lives. Perhaps these people respond to the laughter of a potential paramour in a way that quickly drives them away.
However, the situation was different for avoidantly attached gelotophobes. These people were just as likely as to have experienced a romantic relationship in their lives as those who were securely attached and didn’t suffer from a fear of being laughed at. After all, avoidantly attached persons aren’t afraid of entering into sexual relationships. Rather, they’re only afraid of getting too emotionally intimate. And since they have little emotion invested in the relationship, it’s easy to leave if they feel their partner is frequently mocking them.
Attachment style is shaped in early childhood and persists into adult relationships. However, as Brauer and Proyer point out, your attachment style isn’t set in stone, and major life events in adulthood can reshape attachment style. For instance, abandonment by a long-term lover can leave a person fearful or distrustful of entering into another intimate relationship, even though they were securely attached before.
Furthermore, clinicians have found good success with attachment training. That is, with the help of a skilled therapist, an adult who suffers from anxious or avoidant attachment can learn to keep these inappropriate relationship behaviors in check. The first step is becoming mindful of our attachment style and the ways in which our reactions to stressful situations with our partner sabotage our relationship.
Likewise, we can also learn to overcome our fear of being laughed at. As we mature, most of us give up the belief that we’re the center of everyone else’s attention, so we know that when people are laughing, it’s probably not about us. And as we develop self-confidence, we also learn that even when they are laughing at us, it’s usually better to join in the laughter.
Brauer, K. & Proyer, R. T. (2020). Gelotophobia in romantic life: Replicating associations with attachment styles and their mediating role for relationship status. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520941607.