Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Exploring the Nooks and Crannies of Creepy

No, this isn’t another political screed. This is a blog about science. The science of creepiness.

CreepLike pornography, there is no widely accepted definition of creepy. We just know it when we see it. And science says seeing creepiness is the essence of being creepy.

When something gives us the heebie-jeebies, we call it creepy. Like someone repeatedly licking their lips, laughing at the wrong moment or following you on the way home.

A pair of psychologists conducted an online survey to learn more about creepiness. (We didn’t ask.) They found people call something creepy if it seems outside their comfort zone, violates their social norms or poses a personal threat. Stuff like greasy hair, wearing a tank top with a sports coat, staring at a woman’s chest and trolling someone online.

We also know that people form impressions quickly – like within seven seconds of seeing something or someone. This ups the ante for being called creepy. You may have bags under your eyes, smell after a long and sweaty bus ride or wear a striped shirt with plaid pants. We spot you and immediately label you a creep.

You may or may not be a creep. But it doesn’t matter. If someone perceives you as creepy, you are a creep to them.

Nothing better embodies this problem of perception than clowns.

Creepy clownSomeone in a clown suit can be the hit of a party or the star of the circus. Clowns can cheer up sick kids in the hospital and delight them farmer’s markets. But, as I’ve discovered, for the majority of people, clowns are sinister figures hiding behind greasepaint. It’s as if their fright wigs are their actual hair.

Someone’s clown role model is another person’s creep noire.

Creepy Ted CruzClowns aren’t alone in this perception purgatory. Taxidermists, sex-shop operators and funeral directors share this space. So does Ted Cruz. Even his supporters think he looks like a guy who enjoys eating boogers.

Evidence suggests women see creepiness more often than men. An unwelcome sexual advance or a request for a nude picture strikes most women as creepy. An unsolicited sexual advance from a woman would for most men be more shocking than creepy. Even men find a request for a naked picture creepy.

Anecdotally, there are more male creeps than female creeps. This could be a vocabulary issue. Males call creeps by their middle name – jerks.

On the scale of loathsome to fearsome, creepy falls somewhere in between. If you see something creepy, you may crinkle your nose, but not cross to the other side of the street. You might mutter to yourself, not call 911.

What really alarms us about creeps is their unpredictability. They are tolerable as background idiosyncrasies. There are unbearable as agents of creepiness who could show up as a blind date.

Elf on the ShelfThe irony is that creeps usually don’t know they are creepy. They may sense they are odd, out of the mainstream, but would be shocked to learn they strike others as creepy.

Very possibly, everyone of us has come across as creepy to someone else. Maybe we deserved it; maybe we didn’t. There is a wiki online on how to avoid appearing creepy –

As science teaches, creepiness is in the eye of the beholder. All we can do is try to keep it there.



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