The Origins and Purpose of a Sense of Ridicule

All of us, at some point in our lives, have felt ridiculous. But, what is a sense of ridicule for, and to what extent can it be useful?
The Origins and Purpose of a Sense of Ridicule
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 04 January, 2023

Ridicule involves shame, fear, or nervousness produced by the idea of being laughed at or of looking bad in front of others. Most of us suffer from it. However, what purpose does it serve?

Did you know that there’s a pathological fear of ridicule?  It’s called gelotophobia. In this article, we reflect on the phenomenon. We analyze what might be happening when a sense of ridicule either doesn’t exist or, it does and becomes limiting or disabling.

Ridicule

The word ridicule comes from the Latin, ridere (to laugh) and ridiculus (laughable). When we talk about something that’s ridiculous, we mean something that can be considered extravagant, grotesque, or shocking. It’s something that usually provokes ridicule, laughter, or feelings of strangeness in people. In fact, The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “foolish or unreasonable and deserving to be laughed at”.

On the other hand, ridicule refers to the fear that others will laugh at you for some reason. It’s a feeling that paralyzes you when it comes to acting, precisely because of the fear of looking bad. Moreover, you worry that others will recognize your ‘mistakes’, laugh at you, or judge you.

For example, it can arise out of the fear of screwing up, making a mistake, or stumbling in the middle of the street in front of others.

Woman feeling embarrassed

The sense of ridicule

Most of us have a certain sense of ridicule, especially those who are more insecure, or who tend to take criticism as personal attacks. That said, not everyone does. Indeed, some people simply don’t care what others think.

However, a complete lack of a sense of ridicule (taken to extremes) has been linked to psychopathic and asocial personalities. These individuals have an exaggerated disregard for social norms and a lack of respect for others.

On the other hand, a study published in Protocolos Diagnóstico Terapeúticos de la AEP attributed the absence of a sense of ridicule (along with other characteristics) to prepubescent children with ADHD.

The sense of ridicule varies greatly from one individual to another, depending on their personality, attitude, previous experiences, etc.

An excess sense of ridicule

As a rule, people with an excessive sense of ridicule tend to be shyer and more insecure, and they overestimate social conventions. They’re also extremely sensitive to the judgments and opinions of others, perhaps fueled by low self-esteem and a great fear of ‘what they’ll say’.

They can also be really self-demanding individuals who are constantly observing themselves (the so-called self-observation). In fact, they’re extremely aware of what others might say or think about them because they always need to do it well in their search for perfection.

From the sense of ridicule to social phobia

When a sense of ridicule is extremely marked and is also added to other symptoms, then social phobia can appear. Social phobia is characterized by an intense fear (or anxiety) of social situations.

The sufferer of social phobia is really afraid of being exposed to the scrutiny of others and has a fear of ridicule. Consequently, a sense of ridicule is ever present in their life.

The purpose of a sense of ridicule

A sense of ridicule is actually a psychological defense mechanism. It helps you to avoid situations that would cause you discomfort or shame. In reality, shame is an emotion that plays a key role in your personal relationships. Your sense of ridicule can lead you to be more cautious and control your impulses so as to limit any damage.

However, this mechanism can be inadequate (or rather, poorly adaptive or functional) if it blocks you and leads you to constantly avoid social situations. With avoidance, you establish false reasoning aimed at avoiding this type of circumstance. Thus, you get rid of the possibility of dealing with the distressing situation.

Therefore, a certain sense of ridicule can ‘protect’ you. For example, your level of self-esteem. However, when it’s excessive, it paralyzes you. It can also make you give more importance to situations that perhaps don’t warrant it.

“It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.”

-Agatha Christie-

Girl with shame covering her face

Gelotophobia or pathological fear of ridicule

It isn’t the same to have a sense of ridicule as a fear of making a fool of yourself. The extreme fear of ridicule is known as gelotophobia. This term is described in a study published in the International Journal of Development and Educational Psychology. It derives from the Greek term, gelos (laughter) and indicates a pathological fear of laughter and ridicule.

The authors of the study suggest that gelotophobia sufferers have usually undergone repeated traumatic experiences in which they’ve been ridiculed, during childhood and adolescence. As a result, “the shameful opinion of looking ridiculous or feeling ridiculous will become habituated during the identity formation process of the child or young person, thus producing a defensive lifestyle that tends to avoid ridicule”.

Thus, people with an extreme sense of ridicule are convinced that there’s something wrong with them that makes them appear ridiculous to others and makes them laugh at them.

As you’ve now seen, a sense of ridicule has a purpose. In fact, in a certain way, it’s perfectly logical. However, if it’s too rigid or excessive, it can lead you to avoid situations or make it difficult for you to be yourself, which is restricting.

How about you, do you have a sense of ridicule? Do you think it’s adaptive or limiting?

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  • Pascual-Castroviejo, I. (2008). Trastorno por déficit de atención e hiperactividad (TDAH). Protocolos Diagnóstico Terapéutico de la AEP: Neurología Pediátrica.
  • Sevilla, A. y López, O. (2010). Gelotofobia: evaluación del miedo al ridículo en alumnos universitarios. International Journal of Development and Educational Psychology. INFAD, 1(1).

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.