What Makes a Person Creepy?

Posted by
By Nathaniel Scharping | April 7, 2016 4:04 pm

A wax bust of Anthony Hopkins playing the inarguably creepy Hannibal Lecter role. (Credit: Panom/Shutterstock)

You can tell that something is wrong with Hannibal Lecter the moment he appears on screen in The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins’ character is soft-spoken, polite and almost friendly, but there’s still something about him that makes you want to get as far away as possible — he’s a creepy person.

Later in the film, we learn our instincts were spot-on.

In a recent study, Francis McAndrew of Knox University attempted to pin down what makes a person “creepy,” a decidedly unscientific term that he says had never actually been empirically defined. He asked a total of 1,341 people, via an Internet survey, to answer 44 questions about a hypothetical “creepy person” that their friend had encountered. He asked them to rate the person’s physical appearance, behavior and intentions on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being the most normal, and seven being the most creepy. He also asked to them to rate professions and hobbies on the same scale of creepiness. The results of the study were published in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.

It’s a Guy Thing

Both men and women were more likely to rate men as creepy, probably due to elements of physical and sexual danger. He also found that we are most likely to label people creepy when we don’t understand their behavior, or if it lies outside of social conventions. People who stand too close during a conversation, lick their lips often or laugh unpredictably creep people out.

Uncommon physical characteristics contributed to perceptions of creepiness as well. People with peculiar smiles, greasy hair, long fingers and pale skin were more likely to be rated as creepy in the survey. In general, people are creeped out by things that they don’t understand, or that don’t align with their conception of “normal behavior.” This is understandable from an evolutionary standpoint, because it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our instinctive response to unnatural situations, is to feel uneasy, as we may not know how to deal with whatever might happen next.

Certain professions and hobbies were also more likely to push our creepy buttons. Clowns rated the highest in terms of uneasiness, with funeral directors, taxidermists and sex shop owners rounding out the top four. Hobbies related to observing or photography were also mentioned by participants as being creepy. Can we be certain they aren’t photographing us?


Normal bird-watchers or creepy couple? (Credit: Air Images/Shutterstock)

 Fear of the Unknown

Of course, Stephen King novels aside, there has never been a proven link between being a clown and being a serial killer. Or for having an odd laugh or long fingers, for that matter. But, our subconscious doesn’t take facts and reasoned arguments into account when making decisions about our safety. When it comes to our instincts, a small aberration is enough to tell us: “Get out of here!”

What’s more, seemingly innocuous clues could hint at greater dangers. The words and body language we use during social interactions belong to a set of mutually understood categories. When people deviate from this set of normative behaviors, we sense that something is off. And if something isn’t right, we don’t feel comfortable.

“If a person does not understand the simple rules of social interaction, such as when to laugh, how close to stand when talking with someone, how to use eye contact, then what other things might he not understand that could put me in jeopardy?” McAndrew wrote in an email to Discover. “In other words, the behaviors may be as innocent as they appear on the surface (awkwardness, a genuine interest in birds, etc), but they could also be something that is more threatening. Our response is to feel conflicted and to carefully monitor that individual’s behavior.”

Not Inherently Dangerous

Bird watching or laughing out of turn aren’t dangerous for anyone involved. Still, the peculiar is a powerful driver of overall creepiness.

“I think that none of the behaviors described as creepy in our study were actually tied to danger,” McAndrew wrote. “The thing that they all have in common is the fact that they are unusual and the motives of the person engaging in them are not clear.  Is that guy strolling around the neighborhood with binoculars really looking at birds, or is he doing something more sinister?”

McAndrew also asked participants whether they thought creepy people knew they were, well, creeps. The response was overwhelmingly “no,” indicating that no one thinks people are willingly trying to be creepy. Instead creepiness is a manifestation of something internal, whether that’s merely social ineptitude or something more sinister.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, psychology
  • Andrew

    Ted Cruz = ChoMo Creepy

    • Jake

      Ted Cruz is the zodiac killer

    • HenryC

      I plan to vote for him and I agree. Hillary, Sanders, and Trump are worse, though no where near a creep.

  • Med1

    The questions they ask you and their reactions to them.

  • Jacqui Smith Watson

    Wait…John Wayne Gacey…The CLOWN serial killer isn’t a credible link to “clowns and creepy serial killers”…what? Really did a lot of research on this topic…..You conclude, “bird watchers and PHOTOGRAPHERS” are the problem! LOL

    • http://jewamongyou.wordpress.com/ Reuben H

      One example doesn’t constitute “evidence.”

      • reed1v

        Does for most people. N=1 is about as large a sample size people use to make judgments.

  • Locode

    I creep everyone out. They should study me.

  • johnrider

    If you go to google and type “creepy unc” it should autocomplete as “creepy uncle joe.” Click on that and you get…Joe Biden.

  • BT7design

    “What Makes a Person Creepy?” Constantly lying like a five year old, threatening to build giant pointless walls, telling people who they should hate and fear, orange skin. Those are a few tip-offs.

    • DarthDisney

      Agreed. Ted Cruz is creepy just based on his body movements.

    • Alec Leamas

      I feel like you want me to hate and fear this unmentioned man?

      • BT7design

        I dont want you to do anything but vote.

    • Johnny Alpha

      People who exhibit obsessive and near hysterical hatred for politicians with whom they disagree. I find that especially creepy.

      • BT7design

        Touchy. Its an opinion sir. Hardly ‘hysterical’.

        Watch the rallies if you want ‘hysterical hatred’.

        • FancyLad

          The Bernie ones? Yes I agree.

          • somelady

            How but the Trump ones? How about his explicit condoning and encouragement of physical violence? Or are you just playing “I’m rubber you’re glue?”

      • somelady

        Lol! Like he just commented on every politician he disagrees with! And he didn’t name anyone!

        Again, instinct or snobbery? Pale skin, or a guy who sexualizes his own daughter? From the moment she’s born I might add, like trump? One is clearly more threatening!

    • http://www.noneofyourbusiness.net Arminius

      Well, and there’s telling people they can have free healthcare, free college, and that opening the borders to unfettered illegal immigration in a fashion not seen since the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century is OK:

      Those are tip-offs, too.

      Or, at least, if not ‘creepy’: They are certainly indications of congenital idi*cy.

      • somelady

        Right, like building a wall and continuing to let corporations and the wealthy leech off the rest of us while destroying Democracy and the planet in the proccess is a brilliant plan.

        But I’m not terrified of Mexicans and Muslims and am happy to may my taxes… so I must be an un-American Communist, right?

    • http://www.noneofyourbusiness.net Arminius

      ‘Orange skin’?

      Al Sharpton’s skin isn’t orange, at all.

      Look closer.

      • Bob Rowland

        Arminus but, he is a certified swindeling, greedy, creep.

        Only my an innocent opinion of course.

    • TotalBother

      Premeditated lying, caring more about one’s politics than the lives of one’s subordinates (and then lying about that), forced laugh that never makes it to the eyes, thinking the rules are for other people. Just a few more tip-offs.

    • Clyde O’Reilly

      kim kardashian creeps me out too.

  • Echar Lailoken

    People who appear overly normal creep me out.

    • Jake

      It’s a matter of perspective

      • Echar Lailoken

        Dennis Rader was so successful in his depravity because he looked and acted normal in public. He was a member of Christ Lutheran Church and had been elected president of the church council. He was also a Cub Scout leader.

        He hid in plain sight. What got him caught was an ignorance of technology and an err in believing the word of the authorities seeking to end his depravity.

        Ted Bundy was a handsome man who also looked and appeared normal. He used this to disarm his victims. He once saved a boy from drowning, perhaps to add another layer of cover.

        To get literalist biblical, Lucifer is often portrayed as a handsome man whose charm is disarming.

        The creepy person with a black hat and beard is a literary and Hollywood trope that is as misinforming as the police procedurals that always get their perp and swiftly so.

        • HenryC

          A sociopath who sees no danger to himself is as likely to save someone as kill them. It makes no impact on him either way.

          • reed1v

            Very good. One of the best comments. Will add its not only sociopaths but also psychopaths that can either save or kill someone with impunity.

        • acidulous

          Always flabbergasted when someone call Bundy a “handsome” man. The eyes tell the story. His had a creepy and demented look. Overwhelmed everything else.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I am going by what I saw on documentaries and what I have read. I never met the man. Is it possible that you projecting such on an image because you are aware after the fact? Or perhaps the popular pictures of him are of moments when he is looking menacing? A 2D picture does not do justice to an animated man in a mask. Smoke without the mirrors is but smoke.

            Not to defend the long dead serial killer. Just you know, this is a splitting hairs sort of situation.

          • acidulous

            I never met Charles Manson either. Didn’t have to. The eyes told it all. Just look at the pictures.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I believe that you believe such. To me the eyes look different in different pictures.

          • acidulous

            Well. Like they say, it’s in the eyes of the beholder.

          • reed1v

            Same eyes as George W. Bush.

        • FancyLad

          The name “Lucifer” isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible, to get literalist biblical.

          The only name that gets similar is in the original Koine Greek text of Revelation 22:16, in which Christ is called Luciferous (the Morning Star).

          • Echar Lailoken

            Pardon, I made an error. I should have wrote Satan. I am well aware of the significance of Lucifer and the Morning Star. Thank you for the correction.

          • Fanbert

            Neither the word Luciferous or any word similar to it appears in Revelation 22:16 in the original Greek. Jesus is referred to as the Bright Morning Star, but the words used are: astēr ho lampros ho prōinos.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Hannibal Lecter” does not blink.

    People who stand too close during a conversation” The whole of Hispanic culture is then creepy, Old and New World. Germans are then bedrock.

    pale skin” More redheads for the rest of us. If you got off at the wrong bus stop, where would your rather be: pale-skinned Crown Heights,, Bklyn or lushly pigmented Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bklyn?

    don’t align with their conception of “normal behavior.”” Candidate Clinton is not creepy, she is psychotic.

    sex shop owners” Medical appliance shop owners.

    Psychology Fishing in a barrel for Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

    • Jeanna Crawford

      Referencing a cult film that was made by my old bosses. Well done! Your Clinton observation is spot on as well imho.

  • Tombones

    That wax bust is terrible! Why would anyone want to go to a wax museum, talk about creepy.

    • Jeanna Crawford

      Would you like to post the photo of the sculpture you did? Don’t worry, we won’t judge.

    • 1064nm

      Looks like Beevus. (Butthead? I don’t know). Still.

  • http://jewamongyou.wordpress.com/ Reuben H

    I’m creepy, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to terms with this quality. If I weren’t creepy, I wouldn’t be ME. Creepy and proud! Still, I do sometimes get creeped out by other people. If they’re pathologically normal, for example.

  • http://www.penguinvespa.com/ Brian C Marsico

    I have been told more than once by more than one person that it is I who is creepy

  • http://stevewhetstone.com/ Steve SanFrancisco

    Seems like the point to the word “creepy” is a little confused and maybe the word is being used to avoid using more accurate words that might be too obvious. It’s probably just PR and PC and expedient to use the word “creepy” when you have a better word like “suspicious” or “abnormal” or “scary” that might require a person to explain the basis for the judgement. or maybe not, I’m just rambling and guessing.

    • Alec Leamas

      I think women use the word to include a spectrum, all of which is included in “unattractive,” and which on the far end means “threatening for inexplicable reasons.”

  • OWilson

    Does political viewpoint have anything to do with creepiness?

    Wolf Blitzer, Nina Totenberg, Eleanor Clift, Madelaine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Andrea Mitchell, James Carville, Paul Begala, Lanny Davis, Jeanette Neopolitano, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Rachel Maddow. The Clintons, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson.

    I have a nightmare. I am shipwrecked and stuck in a boat for months with these folks. Help!

    • question?

      Is that a nightmare or Sarte’s version of hell?

      • OWilson

        Yeah, and I forgot the Red Queen herself, Gloria Borgia :)

        In that situation who would we elect to be captain?

    • Bob Rowland

      That’s not a nightmare, that’s a wet dream for a for a bottom feeder.

  • Darren Huff

    I think “creepy” is really just a word used as a weapon to dismiss or marginalize someone else. Our language has many such tools these days, depending on the audience.

    • Jake

      I agree. Just look at the obvious examples in high school; it is a label used to exclude people from integrating into their social groups.

      Someone might be creepy to the jocks, but not the band geeks, or vice versa.

    • HenryC

      Creepy is an emotional reaction. Saying something about it is the attempt to marginalize.

  • Viscount_Wesley

    Caitlyn Jenner…and for all those about to pounce on me about her decision to transgender, that is NOT the reason. There was just one thing that gave me the creeps about Ms. Jenner, that I cannot recall seeing in the former Mr. Jenner. During the Diane Sawyer interview, I noticed that Caitlyn did not always blink symmetrically. That is to say that on several occasions, during this interview, Caitlin would just drop one eyelid, while the other stayed wide open. It was not like a wink, where one squeezes the eyelid down purposefully. The eyelid would simply drop. Owls do this. Independent eye blinking. I had no trouble with Caitlin’s appearance, or surgical changes to give her face a more feminine appearance. But this independent blink took me aback. There was something creepy about it, as if the two sides of the personality inside, had not quite got everything synchronized yet. The issue of transgender did not bother me. Now, I have not seen or recall much video of Jenner before her identity change, so I ask Jenner fans out there: ‘Did Jenner have this peculiar (and creepy) characteristic when she was the former Mr. Jenner? She said in the interview that she is happier as a woman. I found her body language and clothing contradicted that statement. She appeared self-conscious, and when she would attempt to ‘relax’ in her new

    identity, her vocalizations, cadence of speech, and wording became far more like a very ‘out-loud’ campy, gay male speaking, not a woman. In fact calling some gay men ‘effeminate’ is a misnomer to me. Women don’t act like campy gay men. Anyway, it was just the blink that creeped me out. If she had this when she was a male, that would have disturbed me just as much. There are also people who ‘heavy-blink’ – that is they appear to squeeze their eyelids tightly shut when blinking – but it is actually done unconsciously. That creeps me out a bit too. Any heavy blinkers out there?? Are there any neurologists out there who have a reason for the heavy blinkers of the world? They too are not consistent. Some blinks are normal, some are not. Anyway, it’s CREEPY to me.

    • Jeanna Crawford

      She had TONS of plastic surgery to make her transition. It is possible the muscles near her eyes haven’t healed properly.. Or evenly.

    • Rene

      I’m a heavy blinker. Not always, but do it when my contact lenses are dry. People with dry eyes might be doing the same, it helps.

  • Saywhatnow?

    I was watching three and a half men for the first time and Cryer’s character Alan is so creepy, so is Niles from Fraiser.

  • pete gonzales

    I think people stare at you and never laugh are way creepier .

  • Ray Caruso

    Whatever it is that makes someone creepy, Rafael “Ted” Cruz abounds in it.

  • claymore cluepile

    dope users generally consider sober people to be creepy…….I have never heard anybody over the age of 40 use the term creepy in any context…it is a juvenile and adolescent descriptor

  • JohnSebastian1

    What makes people creepy? Constant lying like a Marxist. Going around telling people “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” when you know damn well they are planning to destroy your healthcare.

    Other signs of creepiness? Constantly going on and on about how gay marriage is a “good” thing. That’s creepy. Or how about constantly using black people to keep themselves in power by lying to their faces and adopting ebonics whenever they are near black folks. That’s way creepy.

  • The Masked Avatar

    I did a Google search for Bernie Sanders and the first link brought me here.

    • 1064nm

      But it was free.

    • Bob Rowland

      Feel the Bum.

  • Julie Walters

    Looked up creepy in the dictionary and saw a picture of Ted Cruz.

  • Tamra

    Eyes that are set too far apart, or too close together: creepy, unstable, unpredictable.

  • myface

    As a society we need to be aware that “creepiness” is often a subjective assessment. People who are unfortunate enough to have facial disfigurement from a violent act or from an accident are consequently labelled creepy. we need to educate our children and stop the stereotyping if we want to become tolerant and productive members of society.

  • Anise Leinen

    Here’s what’s creepy: when literally 95% of the responses are about politics, and this article had nothing political in it!!!

  • Barbie

    Ted Cruz is the ultimately creepy person. It’s probably a combination of his hair, his grin and his voice.

  • http://xfoolnature.org Doug Nusbaum

    Maybe it is just because I am blessed with aspergers (It is not an affliction, unless you consider honesty, an ability to focus, and above average IQ’s to be an affliction) I suggest that the author is remiss in now doing research on the connection between aspergers and the uncanny valley.

    The uncanny valley — that is the much more accurate term for what those in the shallower end of the gene pool call creepy.

    Yes. We do not spend all of our lives on social media, scratching out various itches and telling others about how we just scratched a particular itch, like hunger, or pooping. We talk about ideas. When we can find someone who can talk about idea.

    “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

    FWIW, few people in politics discuss politics. The size of your hands is not an idea. Calling people names is not an idea.

    I could go on.

    I suggest you consider finding a better commentator.

    • Rb Bolin

      I am part of a group of unfortunate individuals that has some of your symptoms. I can lie but am so uncomfortable; others have to do it for me. You do not state that you have OCD so you must not have that problem (you lucky bum).

      All of us defectives were placed by Boeing in a group designing avionic software. We took too long, argued details too much and generally annoyed most normal people around us but we created software that never killed anyone. There is a major aircraft manufacture that has killed people with software. The question is, do you want non-creepy engineers or do you want to fly safely?

  • http://www.etherinform.com/index.html Neil Crabtree

    Why do politician’s not have to go through a personality test?

    • OWilson

      They do.

      They’re called Debates, Town Halls, and Interviews.

      What we really need are Lie Detector tests.

  • Fanbert

    I submitted a comment 6 days ago that I spent significant time researching… Could you approve it please? Thanks!!

  • Overburdened_Planet

    Why would a sex shop owner be considered creepy?

    Only in a repressed society would that be the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *