Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Artificial Intelligence

What Makes Someone Creepy?

New research on our intolerance for ambiguity.

Key points

  • While we are all able to detect creepiness, it's a difficult-to-define concept upon which we do not all agree.
  • Freud articulated the concept of creepiness and it is also part of AI research on the "uncanny valley."
  • Ambiguity may be the common link across entities perceived as creepy—including people, AI, and experiences.
Source: Arianna Tavaglione / Pexels
A haunted house at Halloween can leave us with a feeling of unease, or creepiness, which is different than fear.
Source: Arianna Tavaglione / Pexels

Co-authored with Jessie Doyle, a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick.

What does it mean when you tell a friend that there was a “creepy” guy at the bar last weekend? Creepiness is a concept with which we all feel familiar and able to identify, and yet one that remains difficult to precisely define or measure. We encounter creepiness in a variety of situations. Sometimes we read it in a person’s behaviour or presence. At other times, we encounter creepiness in our entertainment sources, particularly those in which some form of artificial intelligence features prominently (e.g., Ex Machina or Westworld).

Indeed, it is not uncommon to experience a sense of being unnerved or uncomfortable around depictions of humanity that are just “a bit off,” as is often the case with AI avatars and robots. We can also experience creepiness in an environment. Perhaps you have encountered a haunted house at Halloween that was not quite terrifying, but that still left you feeling “creeped out.”

Such experiences are common, as creepiness is not the same as scary, and feeling "creeped out" is not the same as feeling afraid. Yet, while we can often agree on what kinds of people or experiences result in a sense of creepiness, it remains somewhat ineffable and therefore a challenging topic for psychologists to study. What is creepiness, exactly? And why do we react to it in the ways that we do?

Creepiness Is Not a New Concept

The way we talk about creepiness is reminiscent of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny, which he defined as “belonging to all that is terribleto all that arouses dread and creeping horror." According to Freud, the uncanny is what lies between what is familiar and unfamiliar or concealed.

Today, scholars continue to apply Freud’s uncanny terminology when discussing the “uncanny valley," which is the dramatic dip in the likability of inanimate objects as they become increasingly more human-like. Indeed, the uncanny valley is known to AI developers as one of the most challenging hurdles preventing the creation of believable, realistic, and likable robots and avatars.

When an AI entity reaches the “uncanny valley,” not only do we tend to report liking them less, but their close resemblance to humans that is just ever so slightly “off” results in strong visceral reactions of uneasiness and discomfort. In other words, we are creeped out by any entity that exists within the “uncanny valley.” Of course, creating artificial intelligence and believable humanoids is challenging and it is not surprising that we have not yet perfected this process.

Alex Knight / Pexels
We tend to respond more favourably to robots that are clearly not human and avoid the uncanny valley.
Source: Alex Knight / Pexels

But why are we also capable of detecting "creepiness" in the “guy at the bar” or the “not-so-scary-but-definitely-creepy” haunted house? In a recent article that we published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, we argue that the shared common link across perceptions of creepiness in various situations appears to be a sense of ambiguity.

Does Intolerance of Ambiguity Result in Perceptions of Creepiness?

Ambiguity refers to a lack of clear meaning in the present moment. In other words, we experience a sense of ambiguity when we are not able to properly categorize humanoids that look exactly like humans but somehow seem a bit "off," or when we are not quite sure of the intentions of the “guy at the bar” and we, therefore, develop an ambiguous feeling towards him. With haunted houses, we may be left with an ambiguous sense of attempting to fully understand the level of threat posed by the experience—is it all in our heads, is it all tricks and games, or is there actually something haunting about the experience?

When it comes to people, places, and things, the ambiguity of potential threats might automatically evoke an “adaptive emotional response." Feeling “creeped out” might be our way of emotionally reacting to something or someone whose intentions or meaning are unclear to us. This makes sense. Evolutionary selection pressures have attempted to help us find ways of avoiding harm and we tend to respond to indications of incoming harm through either one of three responses: fight or flight are the most commonly known, but there is also a third option, which is freezing in place.

Responding to Creepiness

How then do we respond to the perception of creepiness? When we detect creepiness in people, we seem to select the option of avoidance (flight) as a primary response. In other words, when we encounter an ambiguous situation and we are not entirely sure of whether to classify the person as a friend or foe, we may have evolved to select the path of least resistance—avoidance and the rejection of interaction altogether.

While the concept of creepiness is not new, the science of it is in its infancy. In our recent study, we wanted to better understand how people perceive creepiness in others. We found that people with a greater tendency to experience discomfort when faced with any source of ambiguity were more likely to rate images of faces as creepy. In other words, people who are less able to tolerate unclear meanings (or perhaps intentions) from others are more likely to experience the other person as creepy.

Feeling “creeped out” by another person may result in avoiding the person. This may be because those with a lower tolerance for ambiguity may perceive ambiguity as a greater indication of a threat, and this combination of discomfort with ambiguity and prediction of threat may cumulate into the overall perception of 'creepiness.' An important question then becomes whether or not our ability to detect creepiness in others is actually an accurate indication of a threat.

The Potential Costs of Perceiving Others as Creepy

To date, there is no evidence to suggest that perceived “creepiness” in others is an accurate predictor of threat. However, perceptions and responses to creepiness may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we respond to people whom we perceive as being "creepy" through avoidance and rejection, we may further exacerbate the likelihood of that person behaving in ways that others will also perceive as creepy. In essence, if we collectively reject those who “seem creepy” from our social interactions, this same group of people may experience greater challenges in learning social norms. A lack of ability to follow social norms may, in turn, increase the likelihood of others perceiving them as creepy—thus perpetuating the cycle.

Two groups for whom this may be particularly deleterious are those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who experience challenges in reading and understanding social cues, as well as individuals with perceptually ambiguous gender presentations. Autistic and gender-diverse individuals are often unfairly maligned by onlookers as "creepy" and potential sources of "threat." While there is nothing at all to substantiate the validity of such perceptions, research on perceptions of creepiness may help to explain how ASD and gender-diverse individuals can get caught in the crosshairs. If individuals with a low tolerance for ambiguity respond negatively to ambiguous social cues communicated by autistic or gender-diverse individuals, this may exacerbate a cycle of social reaction and perception that perpetuates a self-fulfilling cycle of social exclusion and increased ambiguity.

The silver lining is that this research opens new avenues to combating prejudice: if we can increase the ability of people to “sit with ambiguity” and not respond negatively, we may reduce the social exclusion of those who are perceived as ambiguous, which may actually serve to change the very way those individuals are perceived in the first place. When encountering ambiguity, we may have evolved to err on the side of caution and may therefore over-detect threat when it is not actually present. Responding to “creepiness” may, therefore, result in "false alarms" during risk assessment. Consequently, when assessing risk in everyday life, the uncanniness of “creepiness” may impede our ability to accurately detect a threat, which is ultimately more detrimental to the target of our assessment than it is to us.

Facebook image: Lighthunter/Shutterstock. LinkedIn image: Daniel M Ernst/Shutterstock


Doyle, J. N., Watt, M. C., Howse, M., Blair, K., & Hauf, P. (2021). What is creepiness? The underlying role of ambiguity. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement. Advance online publication.

McAndrew, F. T., & Koehnke, S. S. (2016). On the nature of creepiness. New Ideas in Psychology, 43, 10–15.

Mori, M. (2005). The uncanny valley (K. F. MacDorman, & T. Minato, Trans.), Energy, 7, 33–35. (Original work published 1970).

Watt, M. C., Maitland, R. A., & Gallagher, C. E. (2017). A case of the “heeby jeebies”: An examination of intuitive judgments of “creepiness.”Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 49(1), 58–69.

More from Karen L. Blair Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today