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More PsychNotes: Emotions

June 27, 2017       

Snap Judgments of People as “Creepy” May Harm You
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Don't judge a book by its cover.
Have you ever avoided someone because “he's creepy”? People believe they are protecting themselves when they avoid those they judge as “creepy” but such quick assessments of others may cause you to be more vulnerable to those who are more likely to hurt you.

How can snap judgments cause you harm?

More than 70% of people make judgments about “creepiness” in less than a minute and most believe their assessment is accurate. Those who quickly judge others as “creepy” are also more likely to make snap judgments about other characteristics such as trustworthiness based on superficial physical features.

The interesting aspect of “creepiness” research is that it shows people judge those who are different as “creepy” and yet are likely to miss those who are truly threatening to their well-being. Some of the most dangerous people (psychopaths) are typically seen as attractive, charming and trustworthy (Watt et al., 2017). Thus, if you make quick decisions based on superficial features you may be making yourself more vulnerable rather than safer.

What physical features are used to judge “creepiness”?

1) Eyes. Not only are movement behaviors such as staring, glaring, darting or wandering eyes judged, but the physical appearance of the eyes such as squinty, small, or sunken is also used to determine “creepiness.”

2) Mouth. Missing or crooked teeth, unusual or “odd” smiles are factors used by people to determine “creepiness.”

3) Attractiveness. People who are less attractive are more likely to be judged as “creepy” by others. In addition, attractiveness is a key factor in judging the trustworthiness of someone.

Are people who are judged as “creepy” by others more dangerous?

Actually, the judgment of “creepiness” is more often attributed to those who are less dangerous. For instance, thin, gangly men with little muscle mass are more likely to be seen as “creepy.” More often than not, judgments of creepiness cause the ostracizing of the harmless mentally ill or those with Asperger's Syndrome.

Sure, it is always possible to point to instances of violence by someone who fits the description of “creepy” but much more violence is caused by those who are described as “he seemed normal – just the guy next door."

Is it better not to make judgments?

We need to be able to judge people to determine whether they are safe, reliable, and trustworthy. However, it is important to make accurate judgments. If you judge others based on physical characteristics and make your decision quickly, you have a greater probability of being wrong.

Behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Physical characteristics can be very unreliable as a predictor of behavior.

Watt, M.C., Maitland, R.A., and Gallagher, C.E. (2017). A Case of the “Heeby Jeebies”: An Examination of Intuitive Judgements of “Creepiness”. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 49, 58–69. DOI: 10.1037/cbs0000066

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