What does it mean to be creepy, anyway?

We’ve all felt creeped out — that chill down the spine, the slight unease and the desire to leave. But what exactly is that feeling, and why do we feel it? A new study, which authors Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke call the first of its kind, sheds some light on ‘the nature of creepiness’.

The key motivation behind the study was to attempt to differentiate the negative feelings associated with creepiness from other negative feelings — McAndrew and Koehnke contend that “’creepy’ is a qualitatively different characteristic that related concepts such as ‘terrifying’ or ‘disgusting’”. The key takeaway from the study was that creepiness is associated with unpredictability and allows us to ‘maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty.’

The authors go on to tell us how creepiness lies in the space between clear danger and calm — essentially, being unsure of how to behave because of an inability to properly process the threat level. This inability results in two concurrent strands of thought — the first: avoiding the situation would be awkward or rude, and the second: remaining could prove to be dangerous.

The survey focused on several disparate elements of creepiness — traits, behaviours, occupations and hobbies. Many of these traits that scored highly (as in, that respondents found creepier) were physical and non-verbal. So, a note to those reading this article — make sure your hair isn’t greasy and unkempt, dress well and in clean clothes, and don’t lick your lips frequently. The study includes these traits among “non-normative social behaviours”, and the logic is that by appearing unlike someone most people would generally encounter, the level of uncertainty around their perception of your intention increases. Our reactions to these traits can be seen in this YouTube video — the difference between how a well-dressed person is helped far more readily than someone who appears ‘homeless’. Of course, the video’s pedigree cannot be verified, but the major idea seems to be solid.

Other, non-appearance focused traits that raise red flags are about invasions of privacy — asking to take pictures, asking for personal information, watching people, steering conversations towards sex, touching people, and so on. Associated survey questions probed just what the participants believed about those who possessed these traits — foremost among them was that they were “uncomfortable because they could not predict” the behaviour of the ‘creep’. The reason why these traits might be creepy is because of their ambiguity — a picture can be used both positively and negatively; a touch can be gentle or threaten violence.

A similar unease might result from interacting with someone with a holstered weapon. To react negatively in these situations could be deeply socially problematic — one can scan the reactions to women’s allegations of sexual assault for an indicator as to what someone might face for calling out someone over invasions of privacy. It is this twilight between possible social harm and physical harm that seems to be the driver of our response. The study states that men are far more likely to be perceived as creepy and surmises that it is the relative frequency of sexual crimes committed by men that results in this.

A study from the University of Groningen found that being creeped out actually has some physiological effects — most notably a loss of skin temperature, which could heighten awareness. The authors of the initial study believe that part of this response stems from evolution — better vigilance in uncertain situations is likely to help keep us alive. The mechanism by which we do this is to ascribe some sort of force or agency behind any happening or event — called pareidolia. In the same way that we might see shapes in clouds, we see malevolent black cats ruining our days, or greasy-haired men as threats.

The original study was conducted via an online survey, distributed primarily to young American students, which should be kept in mind when digesting its results — after all, this is a group of people for whom the idea of creepiness has largely been defined by similar cultural experiences. One of these pops up in the study itself — clown is ranked as the creepiest occupation, closely followed by taxidermist, sex shop owner and funeral director. In a wonderful article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie for the Smithsonian Magazine, the cultural development of popular fears of clowns is explained. The phenomenon appears to be largely limited to western countries, which could indicate that not all clowns need be afraid of this perception. While this serves as a caveat to the exact traits and professions listed by the study, it may actually bolster the core thesis — that of unfamiliarity. Perhaps a group of clowns would find rich, western students to be more unpredictable?

Creepiness has become a central topic of discussion in contemporary feminism and pop culture revolving around the same. An article in The Atlantic offers a good survey of some perspectives on the matter, which essentially boil down to a debate between those who believe that unattractive men are unfairly branded creepy, and those that believe that calling out creepy behaviour is an unalienable prerogative. The article puts forward the latter argument with some force, and is worth a read. The psychology behind creepiness can inform this public debate effectively, and can help clarify just what it is that leads to the label that most modern men abhor. For instance, if it is indeed the risk of social consequences from misinterpreting sexual advances as threatening, a movement towards lowering those consequences could be instrumental in lowering ambiguity.

I will leave you on a scene from the television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where one of the lead characters, Dennis, discusses an upcoming boat trip. It is perhaps one of the very creepiest scenes that I have ever watched — and it fits in very nicely with the core premise of the study: which is that it is uncertainty about motives that drives this unease in all of us.

Watch the scene here.