Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The psychology of who we find creepy and why

Maybe they're sitting too close, or just smiling weirdly. Whatever, you know it's creeping you out! Finding certain people creepy is a common experience yet psychologists, before now, haven't investigated this emotion.

Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke, the authors of a new exploratory paper in New Ideas in Psychology, say that creepiness is what we feel when we think someone might be a threat, but we're not sure – the ambiguity leaves us "frozen in place, wallowing in unease".

The pair conducted an online survey of 1341 people (312 were men; average age 29, mostly based in the US), including asking them to rate the likelihood of a creepy person exhibiting 44 different patterns of behaviour (e.g. avoiding eye contact), and to rate the creepiness of different occupations and hobbies.

Several behaviours and aspects of appearance were consistently rated as characteristic of creepy people, including: standing too close; greasy hair; peculiar smile; bulging eyes; having a mental illness; long fingers; unkempt hair; pale skin; bags under eyes; odd/dirty clothes; licking lips frequently; laughing at odd times; steering conversation toward one topic (especially sex); making it impossible to leave without seeming rude; displaying unwanted sexual interest; asking to take a picture of you; being very thin; and displaying too much/little emotion. Men and women alike overwhelmingly said it was more likely that a typical creepy person would be male.

"While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behaviour, odd emotional characteristics or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This may activate our 'creepiness detector'," the researchers said.

The four most creepy professions, in order, were clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner and funeral director (least creepy was meteorologist). The creepiest hobbies were those that involved collecting (especially body parts like finger nails, or insects) or watching or photographing other people.

Consistent with the researchers' theory that creepiness stems from ambiguity, participants said the typical creepy person makes them feel uncomfortable because they cannot predict how he or she will behave.

You probably think this research isn't about you, but note, the researchers found most participants believed creepy people usually don't realise that they're creepy.

--On the nature of creepiness
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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