How to Spot a Creep (According to Science!)

Creepy is a hard thing to pin down. Thankfully, science has just done it. Here are the definitive characteristics of creepiness. 

Man in dark hallway


Creepy is a hard idea to pin down. It’s more a feeling than a definitive set of characteristics -- which is exactly why scientists at Knox University decided to create some.

Psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke started by trying to define triggers for creepiness: “It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear... and by the ambiguity of the threat,” they write in a New Ideas in Psychology paper. They continue:

Most people have probably used the concept of “creepiness” to describe their reactions to individuals whom they have encountered, and an initial perception of an individual as “creepy” undoubtedly creates an impediment to comfortable future social interactions with that person.

Using that concept as a hypothesis, they gave an international group of 1,342 people (1,029 females and 312 male) this prompt: “Imagine a close friend of yours whose judgment you trust. Now imagine that this friend tells you that she or he just met someone for the first time and tells you that the person was “creepy.””

With that prompt, they ranked 44 different patterns of behavior, 21 occupations, and dozens of situations and hobbies on a scale of 1-5 in creepiness - including, “I am uncomfortable because I cannot predict how he or she will behave,” “I think that the person has a sexual interest in me,” and “People are creepier online than when I meet them face-to-face.” The least threatening ones were ranked 1 while the most threatening/off-putting/inappropriate ones that were most likely to make you run screaming were ranked 5. After calculating all the numbers and weighing the whole set for averages, they had the world’s first empirical dataset for creepiness.

So what behaviors are the most creepy? The creepiest things people can do, according to science, are:

  • Watching a friend before interacting

  • Touching a friend frequently

  • Steering a conversation toward sex

  • Asking to take picture of friend

  • Asking for personal details of friend's family

  • Being the opposite sex of friend

  • Greasy Hair

  • Never looking friend in the eye

  • Showing little emotional expression

    If you want to vet a potential date, here are the creepiest things people do and look like, according to science:

  • The person stands too close to your friend

  • The person has a peculiar smile

  • The person has bulging eyes

  • The person has long fingers

  • The person has unkempt hair

  • The person has very pale skin

  • The person has bags under his or her eyes

  • The person is dressed oddly

  • The person licks his or her lips frequently

  • The person is wearing dirty clothes

  • The person laughs at unpredictable times

  • The person makes it nearly impossible to leave the conversation without appearing rude

  • The person relentlessly steers the conversation toward one topic

    TL; DR - if someone looks kinda like Dracula and they’re talking or laughing at odd times, they’re creepy. If they’re registering all of these traits, like in this example, RUN:

    If those are the creepiest things people can do and say, what are the least creepy things? Here are the least creepy characteristics, behaviors and habits that people can do or be, according to science:

  • Being a child

  • Talking a lot about clothes

  • Dressing fashionably

  • Muscular

  • Frequently playing with hair

  • Wearing revealing clothing

  • Crossing arms

  • Obese

  • Nodding frequently

    TL;DR - the opposite of creepy is apparently adorable:

    child-childrens-baby-children-s.jpg

    Credit: Pexels

    Overall, the study participants thought men were far creepier than women. That may be because there were so many more females in the study, and females rated anyone who could pose a sexual threat as higher on the creepy scale: "The results are consistent with the hypothesis that being 'creeped out' is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty," write McAndrew and Koehnke.

    While there were other interesting patterns as well -- like older people being less likely to be creeped out than younger people -- the biggest takeaway seems to be that any behavior or characteristic that seems even slightly sexually threatening is creepy. Some of them can’t be helped because they’re physical traits (sorry, Steve Buscemi; bulging eyes are officially creepy) or linked to social disorders like Aspergers and Autism. Thankfully, most of them can be corrected by improving your social skills -- which you can do in under 30 minutes, thanks to entrepreneur Ramit Sethi:

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    Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

    I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

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    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

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    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

    Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

    When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

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    Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

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    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

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    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

    This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

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    Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

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    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

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