By Sarb Johal 27/03/2017

Now, creepy is a phrase you may have been hearing a lot more over the last two or three years, and often it’s used in the context of unwanted advances – usually by a male after a female. But, creepy can also be used to describe things or places, such as a house, or an area that people are not really so keen to explore – but we don’t really understand the concept of creepy all that well because there’s actually been surprisingly little research done on this concept.

In this Psychology Report, I talk with Professor Frank McAndrew at Knox College in Illinois, USA, and we get into the concept of creepy and how he studied it in this paper.  You can listen to the podcast as well as reading our conversation below.

SJ: I started off by asking him what he meant when he used the word creepy.

FM:      Well, that was actually what I set out to do because I started to suddenly be aware of how often I was hearing the word. People would talk about being creeped out by this guy or this movie they saw, or described somebody using word creepy, and I started asking people, “what exactly do you mean by that?”, and how is it different from being afraid of something or being disgusted by something. And people are having a hard time putting it into words, but they were pretty comfortable saying it was not the same thing is fear, it was not the same thing as disgust; it was something completely different. And so, I set out to just gather some information to see if we can figure out what this thing is, and I had a hypothesis about that.

SJ:       Right, so what are the sort of ideas that you were trying to test?

FM:      Well, I’m something of an evolutionary psychologist so I thought if there is this universal reaction that people have to certain situations or people or objects or whatever it is that’s creeping you out, that it’s pressing some kind of button in our brain that there that’s there for a reason – and my hypothesis was that we get creeped out when we’re unsure about whether there’s something to be afraid of or not. Where we become hyper-vigilant – we monitor our environment to try to figure out what’s going on. There’s ambiguity there, and we can get creeped out by a person – you’re interacting with somebody who’s setting off some signals but you don’t really know if they mean you any harm, or if they’re dangerous, but you can also be in a place that makes you very uneasy and you’re not sure that there’s anything there to worry about. So, you essentially screen out everything else in the world except that one thing that you’re concerned about and it’s an uncomfortable sensation. Uncomfortable sensations motivate us to do things; you get hungry you eat something, you get thirsty, you drink. You get creeped out, you need to resolve something – you need to resolve the ambiguity. And so to eradicate this unpleasant sensation, you monitor, monitor, monitor…

SJ:       That’s interesting, because we hear quite a lot about we have this kind of threat detector – we become very attuned to monitoring and becoming very vigilant around looking for threat in our environment, and I guess what you’re saying here is that perhaps we might have a creepy detector which alerts us to where things are ambiguous and then we monitor them really carefully to see whether they are a threat or not, is is that right?

FM:      Yes. I think of it as our caveman ancestor walking through the forest and there’s some bushes rustling off to the side. Well, maybe it’s just the wind or a rabbit or some harmless little thing, but maybe it’s an enemy or a predator waiting for you. Well, natural selection is pretty ruthless in selecting the people who are cowards. People who said “Ah, probably just the wind”, those genes got removed pretty quickly because they were real threats. People who overreacted and thought there was something dangerous there when there were was not, they didn’t really lose much – you know a little bit of time maybe – and so we were selected to perceived threats in the absence of certainty, and the creepiness that we experience is our early warning signal. So, I think you go through creepiness before you get to fear. Creepiness helps you figure out if there’s something to run away from or not.

SJ:       Do you think it can be attributed to just people or things, or is it places too?

FM:      I think it’s places too – that’s what haunted houses are all about. Or places that give you the creeps are places that there’s no overt sign that there’s something there to worry about but yet you’re on your guard. So dark alleyways where criminals could be hiding, places with a lot of underbrush that could be concealing things – you’re in a place where you can’t see very far into it, or it looks as if you could get lost in there and not be able to get out and not be able to escape from a threat. These places put us on our guard. We don’t know for sure that there’s anything to worry about up but, nonetheless, they make us uneasy.

I think there might be different types of creepiness too. The kind we’re talking about now, the ambiguity of threat, is what I think we experience with people who may or may not mean us harm or places that may or may not be hiding some danger. But people also get creeped out by things that are uneasily close to being human. I think there’s another way of thinking about creepiness that I didn’t study yet – but I think I will eventually – when it’s hard for us to categorise something. So, robots that become nearly human, or dolls that are too lifelike sort of creep people out it seems.

The Uncanny Valley

SJ:       We’ve seen that haven’t we in more recent films and documentaries that Ive seen, where looking at those mannequins and robots that look incredibly lifelike, that does seem to trigger quite a different response in people.

FM:      Yes, and actually this was discovered by people who designs robots. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of “The Uncanny Valley”, but as things become more human-like we tend to like them better and better and better, until they get almost human-like and then they sort of plunge into this valley that they call The Uncanny Valley. It was discovered by a Japanese robotics professor. So, some of the cartoons that are being produced now – The Polar Express is often used as an example, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the movie – but the characters are sort of cartoonish but sort of life-like and people sometimes have an uneasy reaction to them.

I think one of the reasons why zombies never go away and why they’re creepier than other kinds of monsters is they sort of are human, they sort of aren’t. Are they alive or are they dead? You know they’re there right in that Valley there. And one of the applications of this research – I know that’s one of the things you may be interested in – is if you’re trying to design spaces where people can feel comfortable or at ease, you need to know what it is about places that creep people out and avoid that. And if you’re designing things like robots, for example, that humans are going to be interacting with, you want to design them to be optimally comfortable for people to deal with, and understanding where that creep line is can be very helpful.

Understanding creepiness

SJ:       One of the things I noticed when I was reading some of your work, Frank, is that you discovered that we really don’t understand creepiness very well at all – there’s been very little work done on this concept. Did that surprise you?

FM:      It absolutely astounded me. The first thing I did, of course, when I started thinking about this was to go to the literature and see what people have written about it, and I was absolutely amazed that there was not a single study ever written about creepiness. There was one small book written by a guy whose name escapes me at the moment but the title of it was simply “Creepiness”, but it was a very different kind of way of thinking about creepiness than when I was looking at. So, yes I was just surprised that nobody had talked about it before.

SJ:       So in this study that you did where you asked quite a few people – I think it was over 1,300 people – what did you find in that study?

FM:      Well, it was an online survey and we recruited people through a Facebook event – we set it up then just kind of spread the word, and we had a nice range of people, ages from 18-77. About a thousand of our 1300-and-some participants were females, so it was a very heavily female group and I’ll talk about some of the male female stuff in a bit.

We essentially had four sections to the survey, In the first one, they were told to imagine that a friend of theirs just came back from an interaction with somebody and they described the person is creepy. Then we gave them 44 statements about how a person might behave or how a person might look and ask them to just say how likely it was on a scale of one to five that this person – who is described as creepy – exhibited those behaviors or that appearance or whatever that thing was. We then presented them with 21 different occupations, just sort of chosen from the whole range of occupations, and asked them to rate those on creepiness. We asked them to just free associate and come up with two hobbies that they thought were creepy, and then we had a last section where there was a series of statements about creepy people and what they had to determine was how characteristic each of these things would be of creepy people. Finally, we added just one question, “do you think creepy people know that they’re creepy?”

And so, when you put all that together, we found things that you might have expected: males are bigger creeps than females – and I think (this finding was) for good reason – males are simply more threatening and creepiness is about detecting potential threat. Whether you’re a male or a female, you’re going be on your guard more against a guy then you are against a woman. And another thing that was very clear is females in particular, are more like to receive some sort of sexual creepy vibe from a creepy person than men do. So, when there were questions like “do you think this person has a sexual interest in you?” or “is the person likely to steer the conversation towards sex?”, women were much more likely to think that creeps would do that men would.

SJ:       Did people disclose their own sexual orientation or sexual preferences in the survey that you did?

FM:      We did not ask that, and in hindsight, that’s one of those things that I think would have been interesting to know. So just going on the assumption that the majority of our females and the majority are males were heterosexual, I would draw conclusions based on that but. But, that’s an interesting question: I’m not sure how that would change things but a lot of what it comes down to is predictability. If a person is behaving in a way where they’re following the script and you think you understand their intentions and what they’re going to do next, they don’t come across as creepy. Anything that a person does that makes them sort of unpredictable or outside of the norm puts us on our guard.

Nonverbal behaviors turned out to be a very big predictor – if people aren’t using eye contact right or they’re laughing and smiling at the wrong times, where their interpersonal distance is off – some of those things really send us signals. Yes, if they don’t know enough to follow those rules, what other rules might they not understand and what might the implications that be you?

Appearance + Behaviour = Creepiness

SJ:       Sure, and there was some other things that speak to that concept when you came up I think with some findings around appearance as well.

Nosferatu (1922). British Film Institute

FM:      Yes – some of the media portrayals of my research really kind of latched onto that and said, “oh, you know if you’ve got bulging eyes you’re creepy, or if you have long fingers you’re creepy,” – that’s not really what we found. I don’t think the physical characteristics in and of themselves make a person seem creepy, but if you have unusual physical things they sort of amplify or magnify any creepy vibes you might be sending out, because now you’ve got an unusual appearance combined with unusual behaviour and that really pushes us over the edge.

SJ:       So, if you have A plus B, that’s what really starts the creepiness detector pinging for people…

FM:      Yes: A alone is creepy, B alone is creepy and B, if its behaviour, is creepier than A, which is appearance. But A plus B equals C for creepiness.

SJ:       How do you think cultural differences may play into the interpretation of some of these behaviors and appearance variables between people?

FM:      That’s another thing we didn’t – ask us where people were from – we did have international representation in our sample, but since I didn’t ask people where they were from I wasn’t able to sort of compare one country to another. So, all I’ve got on this is informal anecdotal stuff and I’ve talked to people from a couple of dozen different countries about this over time, and everybody seems to be on the same page. I don’t have hard quantitative data on this but I haven’t had any conversations where I would talk about … in other words no matter where the person is from, as soon as I bring up the concept of creepiness they understand immediately what I’m talking about. “Oh yes, we have people like that here too”, so everybody seems to know – so I do think it’s sort of a universal reaction to unpredictable people.

Creepy occupations

SJ:       You had some interesting findings as well around occupations and hobbies and how creepy – or not – that they were perceived to be. Would you mind that talking about that little bit?

FM:      Yes, and one of them has turned out to be sort of a problem for me, actually! The occupation that was rated as the creepiest were clowns, and then you know about the creepy clown scare that’s been going on around the world over the past six months or so? It seems to have settled down a bit now that Halloween is over, but I was asked to write an article about why people would be creeped out by clowns – which I did – and that kind of went by, it was all over the place. But now I’ve got all these sort of angry clowns harassing me and getting on social media and causing trouble. It’s like I invented the creepy clown idea. I’m just trying … I’m just the messenger. But I never foresaw that coming.


But when you think about clowns, they’ve got it all going on, right? They’ve got the odd physical characteristics, big shoes, the wig, the red-nose, make-up, and you can’t really read them because they might have a smile painted on their face but are they really happy? And you can’t tell what they’re feeling and they’re mischeivous by definition, right? They play pranks, so you never know what’s going to happen with them. And they do have that unfortunate association with mass murderers now, because of the John Wayne Gacy case back in the 1970s and 80s, followed up by the whole Hollywood series of movies about killer clowns. So clowns were number one and that fits perfectly with the idea that it’s about ambiguity and unpredictability.

But some of the other ones that scored high in occupations were Undertakers and Taxidermists – and if you think about those, they’re both occupations where the person is choosing to spend their time with dead things and this is something most people would really like to avoid. So, if a person chooses an occupation where this is what they do that right away makes them unusual, and if they’re unusual in that way, what other ways might be unusual? And so perhaps that puts us on our guard as well.

SJ:       That map’s quite interestingly I think on to one of your other findings is that there was a perception in your group that creepy people don’t know that they’re being creepy…

FM:      Yes, and they may not even have bad intentions – that was another thing that our subjects were pretty on the same page with but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. If they’re not following the rules and they don’t understand the rules, well they may do you harm without intending to be evil and there are some funny implications of that. Because if somebody asks you who the office creep is where you work and you can’t think of anybody, you know, you may have to look in the mirror. But it seems like people seem to think of creepiness is something that’s just who the person is and they in some ways think of them as poor souls who don’t understand why the world doesn’t react well to them.

SJ:       Ok – so there’s some interesting social implications there then for those people who are portrayed or perceived by others as being creepy, as to what what their experience is like.

FM:      Well, I’ve gotten some angry email and comments on social media from people who immediately thought I was picking on or making fun of people who are different in some ways such as being autistic, and this did not in any way cross my mind at all when we were doing the research, and it’s unfortunate that people think I was. But when you think about somebody that you’re interacting with, if you don’t know that person is autistic and they’re interacting very strangely and awkwardly you are going to feel a little “creeped out’ until you have an explanation for what’s going on. When you find out the person is autistic they’re no longer creepy to you because you understand why they’re behaving the way they are. But in the absence of that explanation they kind of give you the creeps.

Collecting creepiness

SJ:       You also found out that certain hobbies were seen as, perceived as, more creepy than others. What were they?

FM:      Well, as with occupations when people tend to gravitate towards things that most people would like to avoid, that sets you apart in an interesting way. For example, collecting things, especially if you’re collecting things most people would try to avoid, like reptiles or insects. People frequently mentioned collecting body parts like bones and teeth as a creepy hobby. I was not even aware that this was a hobby but apparently people do things like this. I was a on a talk show on Irish national radio and people were calling and some woman called in and very innocently announced that she had saved every toenail clipping she’d ever had and that she kept them in a box in her closet and wanted to know if this crossed the line, and both the the host of the show and I, our reactions were priceless – I think that she really caught us off guard! But yes, I think …talk about an icebreaker, you know, come on back to my place I want to show you something …

So collecting things, odd things, and collecting things, like doll collecting was frequently mentioned as a creepy hobby. So, if you walk into somebody’s house and they’ve got dolls sitting all over the place people seem to think that’s a little creepy. Another category of hobbies were hobbies that involved watching things or taking pictures of things. Birdwatchers were frequently mentioned as being creepy. I have a colleague here who’s a biologist he’s an ornithologist and so he’s a birdwatcher and he does the bird census in our part of the country every year. But, when he’s out walking his dog he brings his binoculars along because you never know what you might see, like an interesting bird. Well, the police have been called on him at least half a dozen times because he’s walking around the neighbourhood with binoculars and he’s right away suspicious – people don’t know what he’s looking at. So, yes, that’s something I hadn’t thought about before the study.


SJ:       That’s really interesting … I wonder how that may have changed over time as well with how much more common things like cameras are, and people carrying them all the time now on their phones and other … and how that behaviour is perceived in in the modern era with all kinds of threat in our environment involved with taking pictures or surveillance. It’s a really interesting finding.

FM:      Yeah, and it’s it’s harder to tell now. In the old days you could tell when somebody’s wearing a camera and taking a picture. Now somebody could be filming you and you have no idea whatsoever. They just look like they’re innocently looking at something on their phone. so I do think it is a new source of unease because you don’t know when you’re being watched.

Combating creepiness

SJ:       So who should care about this research, Frank? And what’s the point – where is this going for you?

FM:      Well, I will freely admit I didn’t undertake this with any thought of solving any world’s great problems or righting wrongs that are being done out there. It was just an idle curiosity – but having thought about it a bit I do think that understanding what it is that makes people uneasy whether it’s in a social situation with another person or whether it’s in a place, that does have real-world applications and we talked about some of those little earlier. When it comes to designing robots, for example, or other things that humans are going to need to interact with, we want them to be comfortable to us, not something that we are apprehensive about or we find unpleasant. And places, so, for example, if you’ve got a retirement community with older people and you want them to feel safe and you want them to feel comfortable going out walking around, understanding how the design of the outdoor spaces and the arrangement even of indoor spaces can make people uneasy because it makes them hard, makes it difficult for them to see far into the future, and you don’t want to provide hiding places for predators – so to speak – so I think that understanding what creeps us out does have applications in the real world.

SJ:       I think that’s interesting in terms of reducing that sense of anxiety for people who are perhaps feeling quite vulnerable already, as you say, in a in an older care is attention home. And they may even be a “Creepiness Design Index” that could be in the offing in terms of thinking about how places can reduce that level of creepiness.

FM:      Well sure and another place that can be applied … there is some research that shows that children really don’t like clowns as much as adults think children like clowns, and, of course, there are always sending clowns into children’s hospitals place like that cheer the kids up. You know, if have we understand the kids don’t get cheered up by this sort of thing that maybe we can do a better job of it. Nothing worse than coming out of surgery and then being terrified by a clown

SJ:       But that’s always amazed me as well – have you ever thought about investigating the creepiness factor involved with being exposed to a rotund jolly guy in a red suit around about Christmas time?

FM:      Oh, that’s that’s a wonderful example, because as a psychologist I’m familiar with literature on when kids develop fear of strangers, which is just about the time when they’re starting to get mobile enough they can crawl away from their parents. So, they’re about six months old and that’s when they start to be afraid of strangers. But the strangers that are the most frightening – and this tells us something about who is threatening to young children in our evolutionary past – are males with facial hair. And so if you think about Santa Claus in that way you know you’re presenting these kids who are two years old, you know, you’re forcing them on the lap of this guy – that is pushing all the buttons for a terrifying thing. There are those famous, I don’t know if you’ve seen them in New Zealand, the Bad Santa Claus pictures you know, kids being terrified: they’re hilarious, but they’re not hilarious for the kid that’s going through at the time.

SJ:       No, I have always been puzzled by that as an experience as a rite of passage that we put our kids through in the cultures that do celebrate Christmas widely – it’s always been quite puzzling to me.

The post What creeps us out? appeared first on Sarb Johal.

Featured image:  The Creep (feat. Nicki Minaj & John Waters) by Lonely Island