Can Ambiguity Explain Why Some People Seem Really Creepy?

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Photo: NBC

Creepiness: It’s very hard to pin down what it is exactly. It’s a feeling that can arise in us suddenly, sometimes without knowing exactly what we’re reacting to. You meet someone at a party and they just … creep you out. No two ways about it.

What’s going on when this happens? In BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett runs down the results of a paper in New Ideas in Psychology by Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke, who surveyed more than 1,341 people, mostly women, to, as Jarrett sums it up, “rate the likelihood of a creepy person exhibiting 44 different patterns of behaviour (e.g. avoiding eye contact), and to rate the creepiness of different occupations and hobbies.”

The authors, he writes, think that ambiguity is part of the equation here:

Several behaviours and aspects of appearance were consistently rated as characteristic of creepy people, 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; and displaying too much/little emotion. Men and women alike overwhelmingly said it was more likely that a typical creepy person would be male.

“While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behaviour, odd emotional characteristics or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This may activate our ‘creepiness detector’,” the researchers said.

There’s a duh factor here, of course — exhibiting “unwanted sexual interest” is pretty close to the textbook definition of creepiness as most people understand the term.

But for less straightforward varieties of creepiness, it does feel like there’s something to the idea of creepy people existing in this fraught, foggy territory where it’s impossible to gauge whether they are just creepy, or might actually have the ability to harm you.

Maybe laughter is a good comparison point here, when it comes to this idea of a feeling elicited by in-betweenness. It’s similarly difficult to describe why something is funny, and one popular attempt to explain the concept is benign violation theory, which states that something is funny when “(1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans (and other primates), are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks.” Or take the entire plot of The Producers — the musical is about Hitler, one of the worst human beings in history, but the context — silly song-and-dance routines — is benign.

Ambiguity, man — it does potent things to us.