On the Science of Creepiness

A look at what’s really going on when we get the creeps

What makes these guys creepy? (NBC/Universal)
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It’s the spider crawling up the wall next to your bed. Someone knocking at your door late at night. The guy who stands just a bit too close to you on the subway and for a bit too long. “Hello Barbie” with embedded WiFi and Siri-like capabilities. Overgrown graveyards. Clowns.

As with the Supreme Court standard for obscenity, we know creepy when we see it (or perhaps, more accurately, feel it). But what exactly is it? Why do we experience “the creeps”? And is being creeped out useful?

Though the sensation has probably been around since humans began experiencing emotions, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that some of us called this touch of the uncanny “the creeps”. Charles Dickens, who gave the English language only marginally fewer new words and expressions than Shakespeare, is credited with the first use of the phrase, in his 1849 novel David Copperfield, to mean an unpleasant, tingly chill up the spine. In the years after the book, using “creepy” to describe something that causes unease took off – a Google Ngram search shows the instance of the word increasing dramatically since about 1860.

For all its ubiquity, however, the sensation of being “creeped out” has been little studied by psychologists. Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, is one of the few. In 2013, he and graduate student Sara Koehnke presented a small and admittedly preliminary paper based on the results of their survey asking more than 1,300 people "what is creepy?" And as it turns out, “creepy” isn’t actually all that complicated.

“[Creepy is] about the uncertainty of threat. You’re feeling uneasy because you think there might be something to worry about here, but the signals are not clear enough to warrant your doing some sort of desperate, life-saving kind of thing,” explains McAndrew.

Being creeped out is different from fear or revulsion, he says; in both of those emotional states, the person experiencing them usually feels no confusion about how to respond. But when you’re creeped out, your brain and your body are telling you that something is not quite right and you’d better pay attention because it might hurt you.

This is sometimes manifest in a physical sensation: In 2012, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that when subjects felt creeped out, they felt colder and believed that the temperature in the room had actually dropped. (Dickens might not have used the word in quite the way it soon came to mean, but he did get the chills part right.)

That physical response further heightens your senses, and, continues McAndrew: “You don’t know how to act but you’re really concerned about getting more information … It kind of takes your attention and focuses it like a laser on this particular stimulus, whatever it is.”

Whatever it is can be things, situations, places and, of course, people. Most creepy research has looked at what makes people seem creepy. For example, the 2012 study successfully creeped people out by exposing them to others who didn’t practice normal non-verbal behavior.

In the experiment, subjects interacted with researchers who practiced degrees of subtle mimicry: When the subject scratched her head, the researcher would do something similar, such as touch his nose. Subjects felt creeped out – and colder – when the researcher didn’t mimic, indicating a discomfort with people who may not be able to follow social norms and cues.

McAndrew and Koehnke’s survey also explored what made creepy people appear creepy, first asking participants to rate the likelihood a person described as creepy exhibited a set of characteristics or behaviors, such as greasy hair, extreme pallor or thinness, or an unwillingness to let a conversation drop. In another section, it asked people to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about “the nature of creepy people”.

Perhaps the biggest predictor of whether someone was considered creepy was unpredictability. “So much of [what is creepy] is about wanting to be able to predict what’s going to happen, and that’s why creepy people creep us out – because they’re unpredictable,” explains McAndrews, noting that the 2012 study also seemed to underscore that point. “We find it hard to know what they’re going to do next.”

Creepiness in people is also related to individuals breaking certain tacit social rules and conventions, even if sometimes that rule breaking is necessary. This becomes more evident when we look at the kinds of jobs a majority of respondents found creepy. However unfairly, taxidermists and funeral directors  were among the creepiest professions listed in McAndrew and Koehnke’s survey, likely because these people routinely interact with macabre things that most other people would avoid.

“If you’re dealing with somebody who’s really interested in dead things, that sets off alarm bells. Because if they’re different in that way, what other unpleasant ways they might be different?” says McAndrew.

Garbage collectors, who also deal with things that people would rather avoid, were not considered creepy; evidently, the type of thing being avoided needs to be symbolic of or related to a latent threat. But the study respondents did find a fascination with sex to be creepy, so “sex shop owner” was considered a creepy profession.

By far the creepiest profession, according to the survey, was being a clown. Clowns are by nature unpredictable and difficult to fathom – makeup disguises their features and facial cues, and they typically do things outside the social norm, such as give unexpected hugs, with few consequences.

“Creepy” these days is often used to describe things like data surveillance or artificial intelligence (though the creepiness of the Uncanny Valley is best left for other discussions) – anything that has the potential to be used for evil. But creepiness also relies heavily on context: A doll on a child’s bed isn’t creepy, but a doll who looks eerily like your own child found on your doorstep definitely is.

McAndrew believes that there’s an evolutionary advantage to feeling creeped out, one that’s in line with the evolutionary psychology theory of “agency detection”. The idea is that humans are inclined to construe willful agency behind circumstances, seek out patterns in events and visual stimuli, a phenomenon called pareidolia. This is why we see faces in toast, hear words in static or believe that things “happen for a reason”.

Though the theory is most often invoked in explaining the psychological inclination towards religion, McAndrew says it helps make sense of why we get creeped out – because very often, we think that willful agent is malicious.

“We’re predisposed to see willful agents that mean us harm in situations that are ambiguous, but this was an adaptive thing to do,” he explains. Our ancestors saw a saber-toothed tiger in every shadow and a slithering snake in the motion of the swaying grass because it was better to be safe than sorry.

McAndrew believes that other findings from the survey are consistent with an evolutionary directive behind the creeped-out response: Firstly, that respondents – both men and women—overwhelmingly thought that men were more likely to be creepy than women, and secondly, that women were likely to perceive someone as creepy if that person showed an unwanted sexual interest in them.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, McAndrew says, this makes sense. Males are perceived as more capable of and responsible for violence than females, while women faced a much wider range of threats, including sexual threats. Acting on even the whisper of such a threat is infinitely preferable to not acting at all and suffering the consequences.

But being afraid of the right things at the right time is only half of the story of creepiness. Just as our brains were being shaped by being constantly on guard against potential threats, they were also being shaped by the practical necessity of getting along in a group.

The quiet creeped-out response is a result of not only being perpetually wary, but also of being wary of overreacting – the same social norms that, when violated, keep that person from reacting in an overtly terrified way. We don’t want to seem impolite or suspicious, or jump to the wrong conclusions, so we tread carefully.

There’s something appropriate about the fact that the first appearance of the word “creepy” in The New York Times was in an 1877 article about a ghost story. Because for all of the evolutionary priming, all of the prey’s instincts for self-preservation that seem to have gone into shaping the creeped-out response, there’s at least a little part of us that likes to be creeped out.

Sort of.

McAndrew points out that truly creepy things and situations are not attractive, not even a little bit: “We don’t enjoy real creepy situations, and we will avoid them like the plague. Like if there’s a person who creeps you out, you’ll cross the street to get away.” What we do enjoy is playacting, in the same way we enjoy the vicarious thrills of watching a horror movie.

McAndrew and other psychologists, anthropologists, and even Stephen King, in his 1981 exploration of the genre he dominated, Danse Macabre, see horror films as a safe place for us to explore our fears and rehearse what we would do if, say, zombies tore apart our town. 

The same thing that keeps us tense and attentive in a truly creepy situation is not unlike what keeps us moving, shrieking and shaking, through a Halloween haunted house. “It’s going to trigger a lot of things that scare and startle you, but deep down you know there’s no danger,” McAndrew says. “You can have all the creepy biological sensations without any real risk.” And there’s something important (and fun) about that defanged kind of creepy.

Just keep an eye out for the real creeps. 

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