Humor & Health Journal, Vol. V, Nr. 1, Jan/Feb 1996
The Pinocchio Complex: Overcoming the Fear of Laughter
An Interview with Dr. Michael Titze (M.T.)
Interviewer: Dr. Waleed A. Salameh (W.S.)
Dr. Michael Titze observes that some individuals are controlled by a fear of being the objects of derisive laughter. In this interview he
discusses with Dr. Waleed Salameh how the fear of laughter develops and some innovative approaches which he has developed for
helping persons overcome it.
W.S.: What is the Pinocchio Complex?
M.T.: The Pinocchio Complex is a phenomenon that refers to those with gelotophobia (fear of being laughted at). 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
W.S.: This would be the equivalent of what possums might do when they are attacked by other predators. They hang from
trees by their tails and pretend to be dead. The expression «playing possum» comes from that and refers precisely to
this psychological state of stiffness and apprehension or complete stupor that the person is stuck with following the
attack of deformed humor.
M.T.: Generally the muscular tension is associated with emotional panic. Panic in turn means that the individual is
experiencing a significant degree of fear. In this situation there seems to be no possibility for using one's élan vital (or life
energy) for aggressive purposes, like attacking the aggressor, or for fleeing.
W.S.: What you are saying is that these people are completely stuck, psychologically frozen in time, because of that
M.T.: That's right. How does this reaction develop? In my opinion, people get into this reaction pattern as the result of
certain shame experiences which, in many cases, can be traced back to childhood. These people were forced by their
reference persons to behave in a way that was incompatible with the natural inclinations to be aggressive or run away.
They had to behave in a very strict, normative, and formalistic way. Otherwise, they would have suffered love withdrawal
or certain forms of mental abuse such as being put down, being humiliated, laughed at, or not taken seriously.
Consequently, they repeatedly experienced shame. Self-confidence and self-esteem could not emerge in a sufficient
way. In these people, the affective conviction of being a real human is not apparent.
W.S.: You say there are physical characteristics that these individuals develop. What are those physical characteristics?
M.T.: The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote a fantastic book entitled «Laughter». In this book Bergson precisely
described the Pinocchio Complex when he compared people being laughed at or being cynically put down with puppets
or marionettes. This is exactly what the Pinocchio persona is: a wooden puppet.
If someone is unable to develop a sense of belonging in his childhood because s/he didn't experience the feeling of
being loved and estimated by his or her parents, the result according to Bergson, is that this person would be unable to
fit into a group in a relaxed way. So s/he will tend to separate from groups. Such individuals don't develop adequate
social skills. Shame casts them into the role of a shunned defensive character. They hide away, they are loners. They do
not take any risks in their social lives. The main purpose of their lives is to protect themselves from being laughed at by
others. This is what the term gelotophobia means! Bergson says that these people are punished by society for being
W.S.: So being laughed at is their punishment for not being sociable. To put it in a succinct form, the Pinocchio Complex
seems to refer to those destructive after effects of laughter on the personality of those who have been the object of
M.T.: The most sensitive phase is puberty. Generally, younger children are not interested in not fitting into the norms of
society. But in puberty, youngsters carefully examine how others behave. If they do not know the guiding norms or what
is expected of them, then they are laughed at. Subsequently, they take on the role of an outsider. For instance, they may
be laughed at because they dress differently, are unable to express themselves clearly, or because they do not have
dates. The result is that they ultimately behave in a very peculiar way. They develop the Pinocchio Complex.
W.S.: What are the special characteristics that you would identify as peculiar to those with the Pinocchio Complex?
M.T.: They behave in a way that is typical for shame. For instance, they may blush. The physical tension brings them to
tremble, shortness of breath and to stutter. Their appearance is not lively. Their facial expression is that of a mask. Their
arms and legs may not move in a spontaneous way. When they are stalking around, this gives them a funny appearance
so that others may watch them with amusement. This, again, provokes more tension because they try to deliberately
control their spontaneous body movements which is physically impossible. Subsequently their appearance approximates
what Pinocchio was supposed to look like since he was not made out of flesh and blood.
W.S.: What common qualities do you see in those who view humor negatively?
M.T.: They are lonesome and distrustful. Their attitude is «agelotic» (being unable to appreciate laughter) because they
have never experienced that laughter can bring people together or that it can help cement individuals to create a
community. The initial reason for this attitude was that they felt separated from their early reference person. This
reference person, in many cases a self-centered mother, lacked a smiling face. The face they recollect corresponds with
the petrified countenance of a sphinx: being blank, constantly disinterested, and cold as ice. This is the agelotic face of
shame! When infants are confronted with such a face, the «interpersonal bridge» (Kaufman) cannot be constructed.
These children experience themselves as being unconnected to others. They do not experience laughter as a positive
means of shared identity. These children are left, emotionally, «in the lurch». So they can't develop what Alfred Adler has
called a community feeling. Their fellows prove to be hostile strangers who treat them in a cruel way. And one weapon
these strangers use is derisory laughter. This is what dissociated children fear so much, and not without reason! It is my
conviction that being laughed at is one of the most cruel ways of dehumanizing a person.
W.S.: What are your objectives in the treatment of these individuals?
M.T.: In our therapy groups the «therapeutic clown» serves as a co-therapist. S/he becomes the encouraging model for
those suffering from gelotophobia. All clowns expose themselves in public with the intention to be the laughing stock for
others. But they don't suffer from it. Those who suffer from gelotophobic symptoms therefore need to learn to deliberately
behave as clowns. They grow from developing the same cognitive pattern and the same emotional and behavioral
attitudes a clown has. This experience helps to liberate them from the feelings of hurt they may consciously or
unconsciously associate with laughter.
Furthermore, the therapeutic clown is a good behavioral model for healthy children. The way children behave is never
perfect. You can look at the child in two ways. If you look in a normative way, a child is someone who makes a lot of
mistakes and is, therefore, objectively inferior and weak. If you look, however, at the emotional strength of children you
can recognize their creative power and their capability to enjoy life. They can be spontaneous and are able to laugh in an
open way. Many people look at the child in the first way, evaluating the child's behavior under the strict ideal norms of
adulthood. As a result, discouraged children may come to the conviction that everything they do is inadequate.
The introduction of the clown figure into therapy, allows him or her to serve as an auxiliary ego. For example, the
therapeutic clown may come and whisper peculiar, crazy, or mad things into the patient's ears. By serving as a model of
assertiveness, the therapeutic clown can mediate a momentous sense of strength and adequacy.
Thus, the therapeutic clown is the ego double of a strong child. In this context, my own professional role as a «humor
therapist» is to give analyzing hints - to serve in some way as a movie director.
W.S.: What are some of the specific techniques which the therapeutic clown may use under your direction to effect
M.T.: In my opinion the most effective training is to become a «contrary clown» because there are many forms of clown
W.S.: Like what?
M.T.: The harlequin for instance is a competent clown but the buffoon is the stupid one. He is not able to do anything
correct. He falls down because he wears terrible shoes and so forth. This type of clown who does the worse is the
contrary clown! He does the opposite of what is expected of him.
American Indians knew this type of clown. They called him the «trickster». He always did the opposite of what was
expected in the respective society. In all cultures you have this opposite makeup in some form. When people suffer from
gelotophobia, we teach them to consciously behave as a contrary clown, that is to do the opposite of what they have
been trying to do so far. This makes it possible for them to gradually lose their gelotophobic anxiety.
For instance, in our groups the protagonists have to behave in a very stupid way. When they speak, they are encouraged
to behave like rascals. For instance, we teach them to put their tongue between their teeth or take in some water and
keep it in their mouth while speaking. Another exercise is to have them walk and move as if they were jumping jacks.
W.S.: In a way you are exaggerating their symptoms in order to extinguish them.
M.T.: In our groups, they learn to systematically behave in a ridiculous way and use this behavioral appearance as a
weapon to bring others into a state of tension. When, for instance, a psychologist comes as a visitor to the group, a
group member has to address him or her and behave in such a strange and peculiar way that the visitor does not know
how to respond. So that, paradoxically, s/he gets the impression that s/he is being laughed at by those who are suffering
from gelotophobia! The intention is to teach group participants to handle a peculiar and embarassing situation or
behavior in an assertive mode. This means that they can behave assertively by being intentionally ridiculous.
W.S.: You believe that the discharge of aggression is necessary to get rid of negative patterns. Is that a part of your work?
M.T.: That is true. I was somewhat inspired by the work of psychologist George Bach and his theory that «creative
aggression» is not dangerous on any account. We are living in a time when people think that aggressivity is something
very negative. Bach's idea is not to be afraid of non-destructive forms of aggressivity. I use the humor groups to
introduce non-destructive aggressivity into the lives of persons who fear the destructive aggressivity of others. In this
context we make use of specific potentialities of humor, especially the forms of humor that use elements of clownish
W.S.: So one technique is to put water in one's mouth and speak while holding the water in the mouth. Another is to have
people act like a marionette with their arms and hands. The third one is to work with a clown to express embarassing
forms of behavior.
M.T.: Being intentionally ridiculous in front of a group helps gelotophobic patients overcome their inhibitions. Another good
technique is to use elements of Zen to get those afraid of laughter to stop using their restricting logical thinking.
Excessive focus on logical thought is a major cause of gelotophobic tension. These individuals think too much. They are
also involved in «double thinking» when they think that other persons are thinking critically about them - and so on! This
reinforces their feelings of shame over and over. One therapeutic goal, therefore, is to get these patients to think less so
they can react more spontaneously. Consciously acting in a manner that is silly or ridiculous is surely a paradoxical type
For example, when someone is asked why s/he is blushing s/he may say, «Because the snow on the Himalayas is very
warm». Or, «There are three baskets filled with blue eggs». Or, «Because of the water of Z-3». Patients are
systematically trained to use such sentences to create many types of illogical explanations.
W.S.: What is Z-3?
M.T.: I don't know.
Another technique we teach is to repeat a certain nonsensical response no matter what the patients are asked. This also
helps to distance them from the carousel of logical thinking. It helps them to stop doing what many paranoid people do:
looking everywhere at everybody to protect oneself from being laughed at. Thus, the respective patients gradually begin
to decenter from the normative structure of their own thinking. When I speak with you and I always tell you the same
absurdl stuff, it is not possible for you to get me to switch lanes and get me to be embarassed. This is because I am the
one who forces you to stay at the point that was deliberatly fixed by me.
W.S.: What if the aggressiveness is directed at you?
M.T.: As a therapist I appreciate it very much. I usually respond using a technique which you have described very well in
your own work - exaggerating or maximizing. If they tell me I am an idiot, I look for some encore!
W.S.: You mean for example you might say, «You are being too generous in your description of me. I am actually the king
M.T.: This approach is analogous to judo, where you use the opponent's own force and re-direct it to your advantage. I
have used this technique for many years and found it often possible to exaggerate something further. People soon
realize that what I am doing is humorous: because what I am doing is playing the role of the contrary clown.
W.S.: Do you have some clinical examples, vignettes, or anecdotes that illustrate your theory?
M.T.: I want to mention a 40 year-old woman who looks much younger than her actual age. She is a teacher and
whenever she was with small children she had no problems because then in a sense she was a child too. However,
when she had to address the children's parents she experienced so much tension that she was almost in stupor. Before
she joined our group she had been treated psychoanalytically for many years which was very time consuming and
The first time she came into our group, it was as though she was standing in front of her student's parents who she
believed looked at her with eyes full of criticism and disdain. After some group work, she attended a parents' evening
where she was expected to address the parents. When she put the tip of the tongue between her teeth and told them, «I
am standing here, completely inferior, trembling of fear» she underwent a tremendously liberating experience: At that
moment, there was uproarious laughter because no one could believe she could do this. For her, it was a great personal
success. This is what Frankl had in mind with his concept of paradoxical intention. Frankl, however, used paradoxical
intention more cognitively whereas we use it mainly to exaggerate body movements or emotional expressions.
W.S.: What are some examples of other interventions?
M.T.: Another technique is verbally playing with the voice. An example is speaking in a voice that is too high or too low, or
with irregular intonation such as sounding like an audio tape on slow speed. One may sound like an old 78 R.P.M. record
which is set on the 45 R.P.M. speed.
W.S.: From observing your group I noticed you use the technique of content reversal. For instance, when someone spoke
about how happy he was to be in the group, you reversed it and paraphrased it as saying that he is very upset to be
spending so much time with people who are asses.
M.T.: Yes. This technique involves changing the content of what someone just said to you. The technique is most useful
when the content of the patient's comment was forced on by the internalized normative ideals of conscience. In other
words, you confuse the message's content so that patients can discover what the content really means for them. This
then liberates them from the state of playing possum.
W.S.: What impressions stand out to you from your involvement in this work?
M.T.: I have been doing this work for 15 years. The psychoanalytic approach is interesting but it is not sufficient and I find
it sometimes boring for both the patient and the psychotherapist. When I watch people developing joyfulness and a
humorous attitude, it tells me that they are comfortable and eager for these experiences. This is the way small children
behave when they are together. For those suffering from the Pinocchio Complex, the group experience provides an
opportunity to discover their «inner child» and enjoy experiences that they missed while growing up. That way they come
to emotionally develop a sense of community or belonging, as described by Alfred Adler. Thus, therapeutic humor can
provide the preconditions for bringing to completion a yet uncompleted process of socialization. This is the case for
persons who grew up in a shame producing atmosphere and never experienced what social cohesiveness and solidarity
mean. A therapeutic humor group is the training field for sociability.
W.S.: It sounds as though your work with laughter groups has changed your understanding of psychotherapy and you
have become more innovative or experimental in interventions. How about using your humor and laughter exercises as a
form of intervention for those who may not be experiencing the Pinocchio Complex?
M.T.: A complete Pinocchio Complex is rare. However, everyone experiences some degree of shame-bound self-esteem
problems. Everyone has been laughed at and at times has been fearful of what others might think about him or her. In
cultures where excessive debasement and blame are used to control behavior, children often grow up thinking that they
are not good enough or should be better. Feeling as though one is not good enough results in a sense of inadequacy or
When people try to be perfect, their motivation is dominated from childhood, by an endless pressure to perform. They
never experienced the feeling being «good enough». They were used to being regularly criticized because they didn't
measure up to the high expectations of their reference persons. So they would not have succeeded in developing a
So when they consciously start to be imperfect or to exaggerate their imperfections, they gradually lose their fear of
being criticized. How does this come about? Simply put, new game rules are set up. The patients are not confronted with
any conditioned expectations that could inhibit them. Therefore, they can proceed to the playground of social life in a free
and easy way, like children who have not yet learned to take things seriously. Subsequently, these individuals can
gradually develop a new assertive identity.
W.S.: Another emphasis in your work is the way you frame the work as being more of an educational and learning
experience rather than a therapy experience. For example, I noticed that you call the group a training or educational
group rather than a therapy group. The context of training or learning doesn't have the same connotation as
psychotherapy. People are freer in a learning setting.
Also I see a type of reframing in this work. For example, if you want to teach someone how to dance the tango, which is
a very intricate dance, you don't say, «I'm going to teach you to tango,» but rather say, «Why don't you come over to my
workshop and we will do some dancing.» If we started talking about how to tango they might develop a mental block
about the difficulty of the task. So you say let's dance and the tango emerges.
I see your work as being both very organized and very loose. You don't want to be too organized because it would defeat
your purpose and lead to the polarity of perfection. On the other hand, you don't want to be too loose or disorganized
because we would not teach anyone anything. We play between looseness and organization and in that way put some
flesh and bones on Pinocchio's wooden frame.
I would like to close our interview with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein which I believe captures the spirit of what you
are doing to help liberate people from the constraints of the Pinocchio Complex. He said, «If people did not do silly
things, nothing intelligent would ever happen.»