Surprisingly, until now there has never been an empirical study of “creepiness.” An international sample of 1341 individuals responded to an online survey. Males were perceived as being more likely to be creepy than females, and females were more likely to associate sexual threat with creepiness. Unusual nonverbal behavior and characteristics associated with unpredictability were also predictors of creepi- ness, as were some occupations and hobbies. 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.
Smithsonian.com’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie quotes McAndrew:
“[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.
…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.