Evolutionary psychology researchers Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke had heard a lot about “creepiness,” but rather than describing what characteristics creeps display, most people describe how someone makes them feel, i.e. “He creeps me out.” They were surprised to learn that the concept of creepiness in social interactions had never been empirically studied, and they set out to be the first with On the Nature of Creepiness (December, 2016).
First, they established a working definition:
“It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear… and by the ambiguity of the threat.”
I find this focus on real fear interesting, because very often we hear that creepiness is just an excuse women use to dismiss unwanted or unattractive men, e.g:
The researchers found that there are some physical characteristics that people find creepy in additional to certain behavioral cues that make them uncomfortable. According to Big Think, here are the behaviors considered creepiest in a dating context:
“If you want to vet a potential date, here are the creepiest things people do and look like, according to science:
The person stands too close to your friend
The person has a peculiar smile
The person has bulging eyes
The person has long fingers
The person has unkempt hair
The person has very pale skin
The person has bags under his or her eyes
The person is dressed oddly
The person licks his or her lips frequently
The person is wearing dirty clothes
The person laughs at unpredictable times
The person makes it nearly impossible to leave the conversation without appearing rude
- The person relentlessly steers the conversation toward one topic”
McAndrew and Koehnke refer to a perception of “sexual threat” that is aroused by these characteristics.
“Overall, the study participants thought men were far creepier than women. That may be because there were so many more females in the study, and females rated anyone who could pose a sexual threat as higher on the creepy scale.
The results are consistent with the hypothesis that being ‘creeped out’ is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty.”
The ambiguity – Should I be afraid or not? – is what separates being creeped out from feeling disgust or terror. Muggers don’t creep us out, they terrify us. When we perceive someone as creepy, we feel repelled, but we also feel confused about the level of the threat. The researchers point out that it is adaptive to err on the side of detecting threats in ambiguous situations.
“Consequently, the feeling of being creeped out is unpleasant. It would be considered rude and embarrassing to run away from an odd person who has done nothing overtly threatening, but, on the other hand, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and remain in an interaction that is dangerous. This ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in unease.”
Four Key Findings
1. Creeps are more likely to be male.
95.2% of women and 95.5% of men stated that creeps are usually male.
2. Women are more likely to perceive a sexual threat from a creepy person than males are.
“Females were more likely than males to think that steering a conversation toward sex was characteristic of a creepy person, and they were also more likely to think that the creepy person had a sexual interest in them.”
3. Occupations may be considered creepy if the subject matter is strange or threatening.
Are you surprised that Clown tops the list?
While weathermen do seem pretty harmless, one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read is The Weatherman by Steve Thayer. You’ll never see meteorologists the same way again!
4. Unpredictability is a key feature of creepiness.
Being unable to predict someone’s future behavior and being uncertain about their intentions both dramatically increase the likelihood that a person will be deemed creepy.
We are on guard with people who exhibit “non-normative nonverbal behavior.”
“While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behavior (Leander et al., 2012), odd emotional responses (Szczurek et al., 2012), or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable.
This may activate our “creepiness detector” and increase our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question. Interestingly, our results indicate that we do not necessarily assume ill intentions from people who are creepy, although we may still worry that they are dangerous.”
Other Interesting Findings
5. Subjects believe that creepy people don’t know they’re creepy.
There’s a strong element of cluelessness in creepiness.
6. Younger subjects are more likely to consider people creepy, and more likely to perceive a sexual threat.
7. Two hobbies stood out as especially creepy: Collecting and Watching
“Collecting dolls, insects, reptiles, or body parts such as teeth, bones, or fingernails was considered especially creepy.
…Watching, following, or taking pictures of people (especially children) was thought to be creepy by many of our participants, and bird watchers were considered creepy by many as well. A fascination with pornography or exotic sexual activity and taxidermy were also frequently mentioned.”
Women consider men creepy when they perceive a sexual threat – fearing sexual assault. One contemporary manifestation of this is what’s known as the Tinder Creep:
“Individuals — usually men — who use their online connections with women as an opportunity to troll, berate, objectify, harass and lash out at their targets in a unsolicited, inappropriate manner.”
The Instagram account Bye Felipe is dedicated to “dudes who turn hostile when rejected or ignored.” Real examples:
Notice how in the first one the woman calls the guy out for being a player. The player presents a sexual threat as well as male rage, shouting that he is “livid.”
In another study, women found men creepy who acted nice but appeared to have an ulterior motive. That man might be a player, but he also might be a luckless loser who feels entitled to sex.
“Women may perceive this man as inappropriately nice and manipulative – i.e. trying to obtain sexual favours, or eager to please, perhaps even as desperate, and therefore less sexually appealing.”
“Don’t want to be labeled creepy? Then start spending more time thinking about how you make women feel.
Want to prove you’re not a creeper? Start examining your behavior with women and fucking change it.
Trying to put the onus of proof – that you’re not creepy – on women is at best misguided and at worst insulting and potentially dangerous for them.”
When women feel uncomfortable, confused and unsafe, they describe being creeped out. Women fear being made to have sex with men they don’t want to have sex with. In an earlier post, I cited a UN report on sexual assault, which found that “rape was most commonly motivated by a sense of sexual entitlement.”
If a man’s behavior sets off alarms for a woman and she perceives a sexual threat, it doesn’t matter whether he protests that he is “nice” or harmless. Any protest from him is inappropriate. Once a woman rejects a man, she should not be subject to any further attention or communication from him.
Women have good reasons to fear men who give off creepy vibes, whether they’re players or awkward and inexperienced.