Remember when Bobby would flip your backpack inside-out every day for a year during the 4th grade? And how your mom told you he was just “being a boy” and that he would eventually grow out of it?
Maybe your mom was wrong on that one.
If you’ve ever experienced a prankster who just doesn’t quit and seems to enjoy their games a little too much, it’s possible that they have a real condition that actually provokes them to do so. Some people are just jerks and there’s no other explanation necessary for that, but a small subset of pranksters suffer from a condition called katagelasticism. The defining characteristic of katagelasticism is finding true and utter joy in laughing at the expense of other people. Watching someone walk into a glass wall or trip over themselves might be funny to most people, but even while they’re laughing, there’s a bit of empathy to be found; onlookers know that could be them walking into the wall. People with katagelasticism, however, literally feel great when they’re laughing about it. Okay.
The name of the condition comes, appropriately, from the Greek word for “mocker”. People who experience katagelasticism might play simple jokes on people like Bobby from the 4th grade, or they might go after more extreme misfortunes, since there’s not a lot them restraining from going after the laugh. Think of katagelasticism as a close cousin to schadenfreude, which is experiencing great pleasure from the misfortune of others. What a downer.
Here’s a formal definition: “Katagelasticists actively seek out situations to ridicule. They enjoy moments when they can laugh at others. They take advantage of situations, speaking out, even inappropriately and drawing attention to others whom they feel are acting in a ridiculous way, going beyond what would be considered acceptable norms for such behavior.” (Ruch & Proyer, 2009)
What’s a little strange about this (besides just being totally strange), however, is that it isn’t exactly clear where the line of “acceptable norms for such behavior” is drawn. Bullies suck in any circumstance, and no one likes to be laughed at. Sure, some people are better at shaking it off than others and can even find the humor in their situation, but you can bet that they would avoid being laughed at if it were up to them.
So what’s the difference between a “harmless prank” and honest-to-goodness (or badness), mean-spirited bullying? Not much, if you ask the victim. Do bullies have a “disorder” like katagelasticists do? And what if they do? Can it even be treated? Is diagnosis with katagelasticism a way to recognize quantifiably that yes, a lot of people are just naturally mean, or is it a scientific scapegoat for cruelty?
To diagnose someone with this issue, there is a 45-question test that has been accurately used in a variety of studies. And if you’re thinking that this is the only weird “disorder” when it come to laughing at people, think again: soome people with katagelasticism also suffer from gelotophilia, which means that they also enjoy it when other people laugh at them. We feel like we’re making this up.
According to a 2009 study published in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, “[Katagelasticism] often makes it difficult for sufferers to gain and maintain acquaintances and boy-/girlfriends.”
Gee. You don’t say.