Mind & Body

Your Creep Radar Is Probably Terrible

When it comes to judging whether a person is trustworthy, the standard advice is to go with your gut. There's a good reason for that. Multiple studies show people are impressively good at sussing out some aspects of other people's character from small details in the way they walk, talk, and even smell. But there's at least one area where you shouldn't trust your gut instincts, and unfortunately, it's a consequential one. Science suggests you're really bad at figuring out who's a creep.

Creep Radar, Engage

It makes sense that people would have evolved good creep radar to keep them safe from malevolent actors. It would be handy to know if that guy across the street or lurking near the school playground has bad intentions. That's probably why most of us have been advised to trust our negative instincts about people. If the person comes off like a creep, avoid them, the standard advice goes.

That's logical, but it's dead wrong — at least, according to one small but persuasive Canadian study. To figure out how reliable our first impressions are about who's creepy and who's not, the researchers needed to find pools of both certified creeps and certified good guys. They came up with a clever solution. They gathered pictures of criminals from the "America's Most Wanted" list (the creeps) and of past Nobel Peace Prize winners (as close to certified non-jerks as you're going to get in this world). Then they showed the photos to a small group of volunteers to see if they could tell one from the other.

The results? "In this experiment, participants did slightly worse than if they'd flipped a coin. They correctly identified 49 percent of the wanted criminals as untrustworthy," writes psychologist Julia Shaw, author of the book "Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side," in a fascinating post on the TED Ideas blog.

Creepiness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

So if we're actually pretty terrible at telling nice folks from hardened criminals, what are we responding to when we have an instant impression that someone is creepy? In the same post, Shaw goes on to explain other research that homed in on what exactly sets off our creep radar. The findings don't say great things about human nature.

"Creepy people were generally thought to be lanky men with poor hygiene who behaved awkwardly," reports Shaw. On the other hand, "attractive people were deemed to be trustworthy, be they Nobel Laureates or criminals."

"This is an example of the 'halo effect,' a deeply rooted bias where we assume that people who are more attractive are generally more trustworthy, ambitious, healthier, etc.," she continues. "It has a flip side — the 'devil effect' leads us to believe that people who are undesirable in one way are likely undesirable in other ways."

In short, your creep radar is essentially an ugly, ill-kempt dude alarm, and chances are it's pretty unfair, causing you to misjudge those not blessed with even features and good muscle tone. That's true whether you're evaluating them as a potential conversation partner, a candidate at a job interview, or the accused at a criminal trial.

The bottom line is your instincts about creeps aren't keeping your safe; they're just making you more biased against people who don't look like Hollywood movie stars. Be aware of that next time you judge someone as menacing and weird in a split second. Or as Shaw humanely concludes, "go ahead and chat with that person who has a neck tattoo. Hire the woman with acne. And educate kids not to stare at the person with a facial deformity."

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Read more from Julia Shaw in her book "Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman July 3, 2019

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