Why does that guy give you the creeps?
It’s lunch time at the office and you are trapped in a conversation with the creepy guy at the coffee machine. He makes you nervous, even makes your skin crawl, but can you explain why? Is it how he talks? Dresses? Smells? New research from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., offers an explanation for the “creep factor.”
Researchers created a survey to gauge the characteristics of creepiness and received more than 1,300 responses. Participants were asked to rate stereotypically creepy physical qualities and behaviors on a scale of one to five in terms of creepiness. They found anxiety—or “being creeped out”—was triggered by the uncertainty of whether there was something to fear in a person. When being around someone creepy, people felt discomfort because they didn’t know whether or not the person was a threat.
“Only when we are confronted with uncertainty about a threat do we get ‘creeped out.’ Our uncertainty paralyzes us about how to respond,” said Frank McAndrew, the study’s lead researcher, in Psychology Today.
The survey also tested what people found to be the most creepy, unpredictable behaviors and characteristics. The findings show that general abnormality was ranked highest on the creepy scale. Smiling peculiarly, laughing at inappropriate times, bulging eyes, long fingers, pasty skin, greasy hair or dark bags under the eyes also ranked high. When researchers looked at what people considered the ‘creepiest’ occupations: taxidermists, funeral directors and sex shop workers topped the list.
“We are hardwired in our biology to assess features,” says Nisa Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker with Advocate Medical Group in Bloomington, Ill. “So when we see greasy hair, long fingers, or pale skin, it can be viewed as signs of ill health.”
A person’s unusual features set off alarm bells in the brain and, for lack of better label, they are characterized as creepy, Johnson explains.
The study also found females were far more likely to perceive creepiness than males. Bryan DeNure, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Advocate Medical Group theorizes that this is because “women are more often victims of sexual assault and domestic battery at the hands of men and as a result, it is a logical conclusion that women are socially trained to be more aware of these things.” Women are generally described as more intuitive and therefore may be more perceptive to the threat of “creepiness,” DeNure adds.
So being “creeped out” is actually a natural reaction to abnormality. While there may be no real threat from the creepy guy at work, your instincts actively guard you nevertheless.
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.