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Creepy people literally give us chills, study finds

In the movie “No Country for Old Men,” Anton Chigurh immediately makes people feel uncomfortable with his strange mannerisms and gait along with his awkward gaze. Even without knowing he is a killer, it's clear Chigurh is a creep.

People feel uncomfortable -- to the point of experiencing chills -- when they’re around creepy people, a new study confirms. Researchers believe an inability to correctly mimic nonverbal cues, such as hand gestures and eye contact, makes someone creepy.   

Mimicry occurs when one person copies the body language of another, explains Pontus Leander, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Humans mimic all the time, starting in infancy. Children learn by observing adults and doing what they do -- think of peek-a-boo. As we age, most adults unconsciously mirror others as a part of normal interactions.

Leander and his colleagues created experiments to look at how people react to mimicry.

In one trial, a researcher attempted to be friendly with participants as if they were peers. Sometimes the researcher moved like the subject; if the participant touched his nose, the researcher would gesture similarly, such as scratching her head. But in other cases, the researcher would not mirror the subject’s actions. And this caused the participants’ skin to crawl -- if the researcher did not mimic the right cues, the subjects reported feeling colder. Creepers give us the chills. People believed the room temperature dropped to 68 when it remained at a steady 72.

“In the friendly situation, if you do not mimic, that’s when people’s coldness spikes,” Leander explains. “If you start feeling cold it could be an early warning sign.”

When people violate social norms, our bodies react with chills. Feeling cold is linked to a threat such as being forgotten (think left out in the cold") and the region of the brain that controls goosebumps also regulates feelings of trust and betrayal. The chills warn that something is off about a person who cannot follow social norms.  

“It is about expectancy violations. That’s what particularly novel [about this research],” says Geoffrey Leonardelli, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto department of psychology and Rotman School of Management.

Leonardelli did not participate in this study, but he wrote a pivotal paper about social embodiment, feeling a physical sensation such as chills when experiencing emotions such as sadness or loneliness. His paper “Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold?” showed that people who feel lonely also feel colder and crave warmth.  

“We just don’t expect that [feelings] would affect us physically,” Leonardelli says. “Exclusion leads to lower body temperature.”

In another experiment, Leander and his colleagues looked at how people react to mimicking in professional situations. When the subjects participated in mock professional setting they felt unnerved if the researcher used too much mirroring. But if the researcher reduced the mimicry, they felt more comfortable. 

“If you start mimicking in a situation where it is not expected,  it can be draining,” Leander says. “If there is mimicry going on when people aren’t friends it can be problematic.”

The third trial examined mimicry between white and non-white subjects. If a white researcher mirrored the behaviors of a non-white participant, the subject reported feeling colder, indicating social norms among races is constantly evolving. 

More importantly, it shows that communication is nuanced. Leander notes that participants who reported being more independent felt uncomfortable by mirrored behavior.  

“We are surrounded by people day in and day out and we’re building up this bank of information about what sort of nonverbal behavior is linked to certain cues. We all get some intuitive sense for it,” Leander says.

The article is in press at the journal Psychological Science.