Ever gotten creeped out by someone who just seemed, well, creepy?
A recent study currently under review for publication by Knox College social psychologist Francis McAndrew takes a stab at unpacking exactly what creepiness is.
Feeling creeped out is a “universal human response,” McAndrew writes, that developed in response to an ambiguous detection of a threat, usually one that’s violent or sexual — “anything that would make you unsure of what the person would do next,” McAndrew told Business Insider.
Being creeped out is “a signal that something might be dangerous,” writes Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College and founder of the sociology blog Sociological Images.
“Things we know are dangerous scare us — no creepiness there — but if we’re unsure if we’re under threat, that’s when things get creepy,” Wade writes.
For his study, McAndrew surveyed more than 1,300 people between the ages of 18 and 77 about behaviours and characteristics associated with creepiness. The study first suggested a situation in which a trustworthy friend met someone who they thought was creepy. Then, survey participants rated the likelihood, on a scale from 1 (“very unlikely”) to 5 (“very likely”), of the creepy person to possess certain physical attributes (like “greasy hair”) or exhibit certain behaviours (like “touched friend frequently”).
Survey participants said a person watching their friend before interacting with them was the behaviour most likely to be held by a creepy person, followed by a person touching their friend frequently. The third behaviour most likely to be held by a creepy person was steering the conversation toward sex (click chart to enlarge):
McAndrew also learned that 95% of survey participants thought creeps were more likely to be male than female — a perception that was equally held by both male and female survey respondents. Women were also more likely to perceive a sexual threat from people they deemed creepy.
The topic of creepiness is one that hasn’t been explored too much in depth, but Wade thinks there’s a lot more that McAndrew could do in his research.
For one thing, she wonders if people of different races or ethnicities could be perceived as potentially more dangerous or creepy than other races or ethnicities, or if people who are objectively more attractive are perceived as less threatening than unattractive people.
“There’s research on attractiveness, and that people who are more attractive are better in every way,” she told Business Insider. “There’s a bias toward attractive people that’s reinforced by mass media, and even when a movie casts a bad guy they cast someone who’s objectively unattractive, unless the intention is to have the audience be surprised that the bad guy is bad.” The same could be said “of anyone who has some sort of physical feature that goes against the norm,” she notes, “like a physical disability or disfigurement.”
McAndrew also asked participants in another part of the survey about occupations most likely to be held by creeps.
Clowns came in first, followed by taxidermists, sex shop owners, and funeral directors, following McAndrew’s hypothesis that occupations involving “threatening stimuli” like death or sex would be perceived as creepy. McAndrew’s paper is currently in review for publication with the journal New Ideas in Psychology.
So if you’ve been taking notes at home: Don’t watch people before interacting with them, keep your hair clean and, if you’re a clown, maybe consider a new career.
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