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How Not to Be Creepy

A recent study discovered what characteristics and behaviors creep us out most.

Key points

  • We've all had that "creeped out" feeling, but until recently, the topic had not been scientifically studied.
  • Researchers at Knox College surveyed 1,341 participants on the behaviors and characteristics that make someone seem creepy.
  • One of the biggest factors in creepiness was unpredictability.
stockfour/Shutterstock
Source: stockfour/Shutterstock

You know that feeling when you talk to someone and something just feels … wrong? You want to run, but you don’t know why. They seem perfectly normal, and you can’t pinpoint anything specific, but nonetheless, you can’t shake the feeling that you’d be better off getting the heck out of there and away from Creepy McCreeperson as soon as possible.

We’ve all been creeped out by someone. But what is it that makes a person a creep and a weirdo? If you ask Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s someone who can’t look you in the eye, wants to be noticed, and feels like they don’t belong. But researchers at Knox College wanted some scientific answers.

In a 2016 study, they surveyed 1,341 participants on what traits and behaviors they associate with creepiness. Specifically, the researchers asked participants to imagine that a friend whose people-vibes they trust told them they talked to someone creepy, and asked participants to imagine what that creepy person might be like.

Surprisingly, the topic had never been studied scientifically before. Based on previous research, they suspected that creepiness, as opposed to feelings like terror or disgust with concrete causes, would result from people and situations that involved a higher degree of uncertainty. Thus, they predicted that unusual nonverbal behavior and signs of unpredictability would lead us to find someone creepy. They also predicted that males would be seen as creepier than females, and that females would be more likely to feel that a creepy person posed a sexual threat than would a male. Finally, they predicted that certain hobbies or jobs that were perceived as creepy due to their association with death or deviation from social norms would attract creepier people.

So, like the participants in this study, imagine a creepy person, and see if their results match up with the person you pictured.

It's Probably a Guy

According to the results, males were indeed more likely to be perceived as creepy than females. Although the sample was predominantly female (1029 females versus 312 males), male participants were almost exactly as likely as female participants to say that males were creepier than females. Across both groups of participants, roughly 95% said a creepy person is more likely to be male.

Although males and females agreed that males are more likely to make us feel creepy, as predicted, females were more likely to feel that someone bringing up sex in conversation was creepy, as well as being more likely than males to find it creepy if the person appeared interested in them sexually. This distinction seems perfectly reasonable, as statistically, women are at greater risk of being physically harmed by a male that has sexual interest in them as compared to males.

It Could Also Be a Clown

The researchers wanted to know if certain professions that are deemed creepy might attract creepy people, and thus knowing that someone worked in a certain field might make us judge them as creepier. They found that four careers were associated with creepiness above the neutral point. In order from least to most creepy, these were funeral directors, sex shop workers, taxidermists, and clowns.

It’s a trope at this point that clowns are creepy. But why? For a piece in Time magazine, the first author of the current study adds that historically, clowns were actually created to make people uncomfortable and play pranks. If you know you’re going to be pranked, there is a certain negative apprehension about that. When will they strike? What will they do? And it is this sort of unpredictability that makes them creepy.

Indeed, the authors found that unpredictability plays a huge role in whether someone is perceived as creepy. Participants indicated very strongly that not being able to predict what someone will do is uncomfortable and makes that person seem creepy. They also indicated that feeling like they understand the person’s intentions makes them more comfortable with that person. Even if a person is otherwise creepy, knowing what they might do or want to do significantly reduces their creepiness. Thus, it seems like anticipation of something bad happening is a major factor in who we perceive as creepy.

They're Probably a Little Too Familiar

There were also several specific behaviors rated as creepy. It turns out that Thom Yorke wasn’t too far off; some of the behaviors participants found especially creepy were not looking you in the eye when they talk to you, watching you before talking to you, touching you, asking for too much personal information, and asking to take your picture, as well as several appearance-related items (e.g., being unkempt, wearing dirty clothing, and having greasy hair) and nonverbal behaviors like standing too close and laughing at unpredictable moments. Participants also cited feeling trapped in the conversation. And mirroring results from another part of the study, one of the creepiest moves was directing the conversation toward sexual topics.

Participants also noted that feeling afraid or anxious around someone seems to exacerbate the person's perceived creepiness, and that having multiple creepy characteristics makes the person even more creepy. They felt that creepiness is a personal quality rather than the result of a specific combination of behaviors. If creepiness is more of a Gestalt, this explains why we sometimes have trouble pinpointing what it is about a specific person that sets off our spidey senses. However, following social norms and rules for interactions seems to make us less likely to deem them a creep.

They Probably Have No Idea They're Creepy

Interestingly, the researchers asked if participants thought most creepy people knew they were creepy. Approximately 60% said no. About 30% were unsure how the creepy person viewed themselves, however. Only a small percentage (8.6%) were confident that creepy people were self-aware enough to recognize their effect on others.

How to Not Be Creepy

Beyond it just being interesting to know what we think makes a creep, this work has implications for real social interactions. Although the study examined hypothetical face-to-face interactions, many of the same behaviors can apply to an online setting. These days, dating apps are extremely popular, and with that popularity comes a new frontier for creepy behavior.

There are multiple Facebook, Instagram, and other groups dedicated to showcasing creeps in the dating world. One such group, Bye Felipe, regularly posts screenshots of males matching with females and sending them messages that, within minutes, turn toward sexual topics or ask for intimate photos. When the female in the conversation makes it clear that she is not interested in discussing this topic with a stranger, they are frequently bombarded with hostile and demeaning messages. Based on the study, this invasion of personal space and unpredictable reactions is a surefire way to creep people out.

So if you don’t want to be a creep online, use this study as a road map. Don’t shift the conversation toward sex. Don’t ask for (intimate) pictures. Don’t ask for too much personal information too quickly. If you wouldn’t do it face-to-face, don’t do it online. And pro tip: Make sure that clown mask is out of frame when you have a FaceTime date.

Facebook image: stockfour/Shutterstock

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