Imagine you are in a social situation (remember those?) and you look over and see someone being creepy. They are really creepy. Is it their actions? The way they are dressed? Or maybe it's what they look like? You can't quite put your finger on it. What makes people judge others as creepy? It turns out that it's all of the above with a good mix of prejudice and bias thrown in.
The first empirical study on the nature of creepiness was only published in 2016, in New Ideas in Psychology, so is relatively new as a study subject. Authors McAndrew and Koehnke tried to home in on the source of creepiness, the cues we use to label someone "creepy" and identify basic elements of creepiness. They found that characteristics and non-verbal behaviors that we associate with unpredictability were good indicators of finding someone creepy, suggesting that being "creeped out" is an adapted emotional response to situations where potential threat is ambiguous, but we're aware that something seems off so remain vigilant.
To explore this, they surveyed 1,341 people (1,029 females and 312 males). In the first part, participants were asked to imagine a friend they trusted was telling them about an encounter with someone they described as “creepy”. They were then given 44 statements on behavior and physical characteristics that qualified said creepiness, like the person licked their lips frequently or had visible tattoos, that they had to rate from one to five.
In general, men were considered a lot creepier than women. This was true for 95.4 percent of the two genders considered in the study. This could be swayed by the fact there were more women in the study than men, but women highly rated anyone who could be seen as a sexual threat as creepy. The highest voted statements for creepy behavior were “watched friend before interacting,” followed by “touched friend frequently,” and “steered the conversation towards sex.”
It's understandable how such behaviors can easily make someone uncomfortable, so are seen as creepy. However, there were other high-ranking characteristics that are more likely linked to biases we as a society have. For example, having a mental illness, being tall, being thin, and having bulging eyes all rated highly on the creepiness scale, despite having nothing to do with the behavior of the new person towards the friend.
The second part of the survey looked at 21 professions, again ranking them from one to five (not very creepy to very creepy). The results showed that clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner, and funeral director were the creepiest occupations, while teacher and meteorologist were the least. They were also asked to list any two hobbies they considered creepy (everything involving the collections of dead animals is a no-no and, for some reason, birdwatching), ranked statements about the nature of creepy people ranging from their behavior to the scenario of meeting someone new, and whether they thought creepy people knew they were creepy (they don't).
Their findings seemed to show that unpredictability, and fear related to that, was the main driver of perceiving someone as creepy. “Everything that we found in this study is consistent with the notion that the perception of creepiness is a response to the ambiguity of threat,” the authors concluded in their paper. "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."
However, this doesn't explore how our cultural biases and societal stigma affect why we see certain traits – unusual physical attributes, some jobs and hobbies – as creepy.
In certain cases, what we associate with creepiness is due to two cognitive biases known as the horn effect and the halo effect. The halo effect is the tendency for one positive characteristic of a person to influence someone's opinion of them and lead to the assumption of other positive characteristics. The horn effect is the opposite, where people are more likely to assume negative traits about someone based on one thing they view as negative, for example, people they don’t find physically attractive may be seen as morally inferior.
So, it seems, why we find some people creepy can be explained by the need to stay vigilant in unpredictable situations, but what we find creepy is pretty subjective and may come down to both personal and cultural prejudice and bias.