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The Psychology Behind the Creepy Clown Phenomenon

Deindividuation, masking, and the evolution of creepiness.

I have kids in public school and I'm well aware that there's a weird clown thing going on—just see some of these alerts from the internet:

"Someone saw one on South Ohioville today."

"My friend in Long Island had a school lockdown, clowns were apparently seen at the edge of the woods behind her high school!"

"They have been spotted again in North Carolina!"

I had a conversation about clowns with my kids, and it didn't go well:

“You realize this is all nonsense, right?”

“Dad! It’s real,” Megan exclaimed.

“Yes, Dad, it is!” Andrew provided.

“What news agency is covering this?” I ask.

“I saw it on Buzzfeed…”

Are some people dressing up as clowns to take advantage of this hysteria, hoping to scare folks for a laugh?

Let's take a closer look at why clowns are so darn creepy.

Luisma Tapia/Shutterstock
Source: Luisma Tapia/Shutterstock

The Evolutionary Social Psychology of Evil

In recent decades, one of the great advances in the social sciences is the concept of evil as an evoked feature of social situations rather than as a disposition of certain individuals. Social psychologist Phil Zimbardo (2007) has provided evidence across his storied career that there are specific situations that make nearly all people engage in behavior that would be considered “evil,” and there are specific situations that facilitate pro-social behavior in others.

One of the most important such variables he documented, that seems to predict anti-social behavior, is deindividuation, a state in which one’s identity is hidden. For example, if you are online in an anonymous chat room, you are deindividuated—and so is everyone else. Or if you are the guy at the Halloween party with the body-covering monster costume and mask and you never reveal your identity, you are deindividuated.

People are also much more likely to engage in various abhorrent behaviors when they are in a state of deindividuation. Researchers have found that deindividuated individuals are more likely to hurt others, cheat, steal, lie, and even kill under such conditions.

From an evolutionary perspective (Smith, 2008; Geher, 2014), we can think of deindividuation as a tool individuals have often used during activities such as warfare. In battles across human history, soldiers have worn all kinds of costumes, uniforms, and masks. These take away the individuality of any particular soldier, so they all “benefit” from the effects of deindividuation on social behavior, which leads them to be more OK with killing their enemies.

When people are in a state of deindividuation, we can expect them to act at their worst. This helps us understand some disparate-seeming phenomena:

  • Telemarketers, who never see you, can be very annoying (pretending, for instance, to not understand phrases such as “I can’t talk right now”).
  • The nastiest comments on website are often the anonymous ones.
  • Executioners often wear masks.*
  • The killers in famous slasher films like Halloween, Scream, and Friday the 13th wore masks.
  • Spartan warriors famously wore battle masks during warfare, and ...
  • Clowns are creepy.

This evolutionary-based social psychological take on deindividuation integrates a number of phenomena that seem unrelated. But they are important and clearly related.

Clowns as Deindividuated

One of the hallmarks of clowns is deindividuation. They wear funny outfits. They wear crazy wigs. And they usually wear full make-up. (And don’t forget the clown nose.) While these features likely have several functions, from a social psychological perspective, the primary function is deindividuation. Once you’re in your clown outfit, your true identity becomes deeply buried in the minds of anyone observing you. You are no longer “Joseph Harrington,” you are “Mr. Bibbles!” And as a deindividuated person, your behavior is likely to change in many ways.

In his treatise on the evolutionary history of warfare, David Livingstone Smith (2008) provides evidence that deindividuation—and its psychological cousin, dehumanization—go back millennia. Across much of our evolutionary history, people have been exposed to the anti-social effects of deindividuation. For this reason, we may naturally be creeped out when we see someone in a deindividuated state. And guess what? When we look at a clown, we are looking at someone in a deindividuated state. Being a little creeped out goes with the psychological territory, and it has likely been this way for a long time.

Deindividuation and the Workplace

It occurs to me that clowns are rare because they are supposed to be deindividuated in their work context. In most work contexts, people are supposed to be highly individuated. At the grocery store, the checkout person wears a name tag. At the doctor’s office, the nurse and the doctor introduce themselves at the start of an appointment. Every student knows their teacher’s name and face. A trial lawyer does not wear a mask during his work (although he or she may really be a shark). And so forth.

Clowns are different: Deindividuation is a necessary part of their work. I’d argue that this particular disconnect largely explains why clowns seem to have a special status when it comes to the creep factor in our modern world.

Bottom Line

As with any cultural phenomenon, there are likely many factors at work in the clown-related pandemonium that is sweeping the nation. But deindividuation plays a major role in that clowns are generally considered high on the creep index.

PeterLinforth / Pixabay
Source: PeterLinforth / Pixabay

If you see a clown at the edge of the woods on, say, South Ohioville Road, please remember that he or she is probably a person just like you: One with feelings. So my suggestion run the other way, and don’t look back! Clowns are deindividuated and creepy!

* From Bob Dylan’s lyric: “The executioner’s face is always well-hidden.”


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