What constitutes a "creep"—or, if you're a sassy preteen living in 2003, a "creeper"—has long been a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. Quaint olde synonyms include "sneak thief" and "gilded rascal"; one might be given "the creeps" or be "creeped out." Yet despite the range of linguistic options for describing this particular type of person or feeling of unease, and despite some research examining physiological responses to creeps, there has been no empirical study on what creepiness really means.
Until now. In 2016, researchers at Knox College published the findings of a broad survey of the behaviors and characteristics that people consider creepy. Although the paper, literarily titled "On the nature of creepiness," affirms much of what women in bars around the world already know, it also suggests that creep radar is an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us perceive and avoid threats.
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"I think the creepiness response is an adaptive response, whether you're dealing with a person or a place," says Frank McAndrew, the lead researcher on the study and a professor of psychology at Knox College. "You become hyper-focused on trying to resolve this puzzle: Is this person a threat or not? Because it's going to be really embarrassing if you run away screaming and the person is innocent but maybe just a little awkward. On the other hand, if you don't run away screaming and they are sinister, you've got another problem. We're really motivated to get rid of this unpleasant ambiguity."
The study surveyed 1,341 people from different countries who were an average age of 28. The results concluded that creepiness is tied to unpredictability, suggesting a potential threat rather than an actual one. The researchers asked about which professions are the creepiest—clowns, followed closely by taxidermists and then sex shop owners. It also found that failures to respond to social cues were high predictors of creepiness; these included standing too close, "not looking the interaction partner in the eye, asking to take a picture of the interaction partner, watching people before interacting with them, asking about details of one's personal life, having a mental illness, talking about his/her own personal life, displaying too much or too little emotion, being older, and steering the conversation toward sex."
While researchers also asked about physical characteristics such as long fingers, greasy hair, "peculiar smiles," being too thin, and dressing weird, McAndrew says that physical characteristics alone do not a creep make. "If people have very unusual physical characteristics, that kind of magnifies any creepy vibes they're sending out," he says, "but there isn't any particular physical characteristic that we look at and say, 'Aha! A creep!'"
In recent years many-a thinkpiece has been written about "the politics of creep-shaming" after men's rights activists took issue with what they deemed a misandrist term. As McAndrew's study shows, however, there is some truth to the idea that all creeps are dudes. While there is no creep checklist, no set of behaviors that definitively marks one as "creepy" or "cool," over 95 percent of respondents said creepy people were more likely to be men than women. Women were also more likely to associate creepiness and sexual threat. While the study didn't differentiate between what men found creepy and what women found creepy, "women were more likely to think that the person had some sort of sexual interest in them," McAndrew says.
Although McAndrew says he hopes the findings will inspire future research, with more of a focus on what different cultures find creepy, McAndrew acknowledges that his intensive interest in the subject might itself seem creepy—though it would be hard to say, since 59 percent of study participants believe that creepy people don't know they're creepy. When I ask if McAndrew's ever been accused of as much, he is at first equivocal. "As my own research found out, creepy people don't know they're creepy, so how would I know?" When I ask if conducting the study was cause for self-reflection, however, he is firm. "No. I can honestly say no."