What makes someone creepy? Unbelievably, science has never asked this question — until now.
“I was absolutely amazed that there had never been a single study about this,” considering how often people refer to being “creeped out” or “creepiness” in everyday conversation, said Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Illinois’ Knox College.
So he decided to find out. The result: The first “empirical study of creepiness,” published last month in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.
His study used an international online survey of 1,341 adults — two-thirds women, mostly Americans, ranging in age from 18 to 77 — who were asked to rank creepy behaviors and the creepiest occupations. (Sorry, clowns. No one likes you.)
“Just for fun,” he also asked participants to list two hobbies that they thought of as creepy.
Creepiness, McAndrew explained, stems from being unsure if someone’s threatening, and what type of threat it might be — for example, sexual or physical violence. His research found that the overwhelming majority (95 percent) of both men and women believe men are more likely to be creeps than women, mainly because men are seen as more menacing.
He also found that as people aged, they were less upset by creepy people. “It may be that experience makes us better at distinguishing dangerously creepy people from merely awkwardly creepy people,” he told AARP in an email. “It may also be that older people have less to fear from creeps than younger people. For example, younger women are more likely to be at risk for some sort of creepy sexual overtures than are older women.”
So what’s the most creepy? Here’s what the survey found:
- Sex shop owner
- Funeral director
- Taxi driver
Creepiest traits and behaviors:
- Standing too close to someone
- Greasy or unkempt hair
- Peculiar smile
- Bulging eyes
- Very pale skin
- Bags under the eyes
- Dressed oddly
- Licking lips frequently
- Laughing at unpredictable times
- Collecting things like dolls, insects, reptiles or body parts like bones or fingernails
- Birdwatching and photography, especially of children
Pontus Leander, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who studied how creepy people literally give us chills, told the Today show that the new survey “points out just how negatively we react to people who do not follow unspoken rules for social behavior.”
As for McAndrew, he’d like his next study to be how people react to creepy places. Halloween haunted houses, anyone?