Creepiness - Yup, someone studied that

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Creepiness. We know it when we see it. It's that dusty clown doll just sitting in the dark corner, going to the mortuary at night, the strange-looking guy that seems to be just a little too close to you. If you have to define why those things are creepy, it gets a bit tougher. Fear not, your friendly psychological researchers have asked that very question and decided to find out what makes something creepy.

In 2013, Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S Koehnke of Knox College presented a poster presentation at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans, entitled On the Nature of Creepiness. The survey to which 1,341 people responded (1,029 females and 312 males) took a first look at four elements of creepiness: 1) what behaviors/characteristics makes a person creepy, 2) what are creepy occupations, 3) what are creepy hobbies, and 4) the nature of creepy people.

What is creepy? It seems that an ambiguous threat is the underlying factor that seems to link those things that are creepy. Things that could be associated with death or deviant sexual behavior will give people the chills.

Creepy Behaviors/characteristics: Their findings suggest that men are more creepy than women. This was equally endorsed by men (95.5% vs. 4.5%) and women (95.2% vs. 4.8%). Women find a preoccupation with sex or more generally an  ambiguous sexual threat as very creepy. Too much touching by others or other non-normative nonverbal behaviors that make us uncomfortable increase the creepy meter too.

Creepy Occupations: The most creepy occupations are Clowns (no surprise), Taxidermists, Sex Shop Owners, and Funeral Directors. I had to wonder if psychologists would have been ranked as creepy. Unfortunately, it was not included on the list of occupations.

Creepy Hobbies: Collecting stuff (dolls, insects, reptiles, etc. ) was considered creepy. A very creepy collectible was body parts (teeth, bones, or fingernails). The second most creepy hobby was voyeurism (watching, following, or taking pictures of other people). Also listed, but not a top-two finisher was a fascination with pornography or exotic sexual activity and taxidermy.

The nature of creepy people: People, generally men, who do things or look like they are outside of the normal social spectrum of behavior will most likely be perceived as creepy. It isn't that we believe that the creepy person will hurt us, we just don't know/understand what they are about and that leaves us in an ambiguous place as to how to classify the potential threat of the person. Most people believe that creepy people will always be creepy, and the worst part is that if you're creepy, you probably don't know it.

One thing that this study didn't address was why clowns have become creepy. That's a topic for another day, but if you are curious, read this.

If you're looking for the creepiest Halloween costume, be a male who is too preoccupied with sex and death. Touch the people around you a little too much and appear disheveled and a bit unclean. If you want to add a little spit and polish to the costume, hand out business cards stating that you're a clown who collects body parts. One word of caution, this costume could stick and you won't even know.

Enjoy the creepy season!

About the Author
Dr. Yamazaki has been involved in adult education since the mid-1980's. She has developed technology-based education for the Air Force, commercial industry, and for higher education. She is certified in instruction systems design. She has taught courses for the Air Force and at community college, college, and university institutions. She was awarded the teaching excellence award at the US Air Force Academy as an instructor for the behavioral sciences. In her work with Macmillan Higher Education, she works with educators and editorial to consult on the development of educational products, services, and experiences for higher education.