Why creepy men scare us: That "ew" factor is a built-in warning bell

A new study says we interpret unpredictable behavior, along with certain nonverbal cues, as ambiguously dangerous

Published April 6, 2016 8:21PM (EDT)

Jack Gleeson in "Game of Thrones"   (HBO)
Jack Gleeson in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)

I’m not sure when creepiness became so ubiquitous. As a kid, I remember thinking certain classmates or behaviors like eating glue were weird. I also had a fear of fish, but I never really used the word “creepy” or any of its forms -- “creep,” “creeper,” “creepiness” -- until I was an adult.

Friends and I will say a guy was “creepy” following a strange encounter, and none of us will ask any further questions regarding why we ceased contact. Creepiness can be associated with a number of things: piercing eye contact, unwanted physical contact, idiosyncratic body language, or unusual comments are just a few.

But the very nature of creepiness is only now being researched in terms of science. According to a new paper in the journal of New Ideas in Psychology, creepiness has a lot to do with the potential for a perceived threat to be fulfilled. To conduct the study, researchers surveyed 1341 people on the basis of creepiness, to see if either sex is perceived as more creepy, and which behaviors and occupations also alarm us.

Overwhelmingly, males were perceived to be more creepy than females (I mean, duh), and women were more likely to associate creepiness with possible sexual threat. Researchers were interested in which cues prompted the perceived threat, and found nonverbal behavior was often responsible for causing discomfort in respondents. Such cues can range from poor hygiene to darting eye contact, etc. So why does non-normative behavior make our skin crawl to the point where we feel our safety is endangered?

Researchers associate the level of threat with “agency detection,” which evolutionary psychologists explain as adaptive mechanisms that protect us from harm/enemies. Creepiness is different from a deliberate threat such as being jumped or kidnapped. In those cases, you know what the source of danger is. The hair-raising suspicions of creepiness have to do with the inherent ambiguity. You’re not exactly sure what the threat is, but cognizant of its presence that registers below a fully conscious threshold that we can identify. This ambiguity causes anxiety because it sucks to not know what you should be protecting yourself from.

One of the paper’s hypotheses states unpredictability in a person is associated with higher levels of creepiness. Because we’re already initially uncomfortable with being unable to assess a person’s motives, we become hyper-aware of their behavior while trying to size them up.

Other things found to sound our creep-alarms are behaviors such as standing too close to a person, frequent and persistent lip smacking or licking, odd dress and relentlessly directing a conversation to one topic.

The survey included a questionnaire about the nature of creepy people, and the responses were put under factor analysis. The statement, “When I meet someone who seems creepy…” was posed, and elicited responses of fear and anxiety such as “I am sure that person intends to harm me,” “I am uncomfortable because I cannot predict how he or she will behave,” and “I believe he or she is intentionally hiding something from me.”

We also sense creepiness based on occupation. Vocations involving close contact with death or unusual sexual fetishes, such as taxidermy or clowns, were found to be perceived as very creepy among respondents. Additionally, people who have hobbies to collect things most people fear, like spiders, tend to make our skin crawl. This could be due to inherent biological fear that drives us to avoid spiders, hence reducing our chances of being bitten and poisoned, which would make sense as to why we’d be inclined to avoid people with such an interest.

Although the study evaluated creepy behavior, it didn’t propose a way of mitigating the behaviors. So now we have to wonder, do creepy people even realize their behavior is off-putting? Chances are, if you confront a person about their idiosyncrasies, they’re likely to think you’re the creep.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

MORE FROM Erin Coulehan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Creeps Editor's Pick Fear Psychology Social Science