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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Apr-16


Sunday 10-April-16

The Psychology of Creepiness

Have you met anybody that you found creepy? Yes, of course you have. And you've probably seen plenty on TV and in the movies, where writers and producers love to cast weird people who build the tension.

But what is it about people that makes them creepy? McAndrews and Koehnke (2016) found a range of factors, including:

  • Standing too close
  • Greasy hair
  • Peculiar smile
  • Bulging eyes
  • Having a mental illness
  • Long fingers
  • Unkempt hair
  • Pale skin
  • Bags under eyes
  • Odd/dirty clothes
  • Licking lips frequently
  • Laughing at odd times
  • Steering conversation toward one topic (especially sex)
  • Making it impossible to leave without seeming rude
  • Displaying unwanted sexual interest
  • Asking to take a picture of you
  • Being very thin
  • Displaying too much/little emotion.

Oh yes, and being male. It's so much easier to be creepy if you're a man, and particularly when you are talking with a women. Age difference probably doesn't help, either. Women are well aware of the potential predatory actions of some men and have a strong radar for signs of danger, which they typically include in the general descriptor of 'creepy'. Threats are experienced when it is difficult to predict what the person will do, and creepiness often displays this through uncertainty and ambiguity in the way the creepy person appears and behaves.

Just reading this may make you feel a bit creeped out as it reminds you of creepy people you have met before. It's also a great checklist for movie-makers, though I'm sure we could add a few more items as well. But how about reducing the list? Can we identify some of the common underlying factors? Here's a list of what we expect of others, and the creepy-list breaking of these expectation:

  • Dirty / infectious: Greasy hair, Unkempt hair, Odd/dirty clothes, Pale skin, Bags under eyes, Being very thin, Bulging eyes
  • Self-focused (lacking empathy): Peculiar smile, Laughing at odd times, Licking lips frequently, Steering conversation towards one topic, Displaying unwanted sexual interest, Displaying too much/little emotion
  • Not knowing social rules (and hence may break them): Peculiar smile, Standing too close, Laughing at odd times, Displaying unwanted sexual interest
  • Possible physical threat: Standing too close, Bulging eyes, Bulging eyes, Long fingers, Licking lips frequently, Steering conversation towards one topic, Asking to take a picture of you, Making it impossible to leave without being rude.

This gives a clear steer if you want to avoid appearing creepy, which is surprisingly easy to do, especially if you are a man taking with a woman (and more so if you find her attractive).

  • Be clean and tidy, especially when meeting people you don't know well.
  • Be empathetic. Focus on them and listen attentively, though not too much. Beware of sharing personal details that may make them uncomfortable.
  • Follow social rules. Know social values. Be kind. Reciprocate. Respect them.
  • Be safe. Avoid threats in how you stand, how you move and what you say. Avoid getting too close or sudden movement. Avoid emotional words, including swearing. Be reliably predictable.


McAndrews, F.T. and Koehnke, S.S. (2016), On the Nature of Creepiness, New Ideas in Psychology, 43, December 2016, 10?15


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