What does it mean to find someone (or some-thing) creepy? What is it exactly about that person smiling weirdly in the corner of a coffee shop so intimidating and unsettling? Everyone experiences creepiness from time to time, but few, if anyone, can put a finger on what it really means.
In their new, exploratory paper, published in New Ideas in Psychology, Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke say that creepiness is what we feel when we think someone might be a threat, but we’re not sure – the ambiguity leaves us “frozen in place, wallowing in unease”.
The pair conducted an online survey of 1341 people (mostly young female Americans), asking them to rate how likely a creepy person is to exhibit 44 different patterns of behaviour, and to rate different occupations and hobbies.
For the most part, behaviours associated with creepiness come as no surprise – people were consistently “creeped out” by those who repeatedly lick their lips, laugh at inappropriate moments, stand too close, habitually steer conversation towards a single subject (such as sex), display too much/little emotion and make it impossible to leave without seeming rude.
Survey takers were also unsettled by certain physical characteristics, such as bulging eyes, greasy and/or unkempt hair, long fingers, pale skin, bags under the eyes, and odd/dirty clothes, indicating a deeper prejudice against people with poor hygiene or conventionally unattractive features.
“While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behaviour, odd emotional characteristics or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This may activate our ‘creepiness detector’,” the researchers said.
Study participants (both men and women) also agreed that a creepy person is most likely male, and found taxidermists, clowns, sex shop owners and funeral directors to be the creepiest professions (while meteorologists were perceived as the least so).
If you’ve failed to check any of the “creep factor” boxes, however, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily off the hook – survey takers also agreed that creepy people usually don’t see themselves as that.