Why Creepy People Give Us the Chills

by Daniel Strain on 23 April 2012, 4:58 PM |

Chilly reception. Creepy people like Norman Bates can literally send shivers down someone’s spine. Credit: Photononstop/Superstock From the moment he steps onscreen in the 1960 thriller Psycho, Norman Bates gives audiences the goosebumps. The hotel manager-turned-serial killer just seems, well, off, maybe because he's trying so hard to appear normal. Now a new study suggests that people who fail to appropriately imitate the mannerisms of others during social interactions can actually make their peers feel colder—like Bates, they send a literal chill down the spine. In most cases, a little bit of imitation is a good thing, says study co-author Pontus Leander, a social psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Friends frequently copy speech patterns and body language, a type of imitation called behavioral mimicry. Psychologists suspect that this behavior, which usually goes unnoticed by either party, can help to build trust. Leander even catches himself slipping into mimicry on occasion. He recently, for instance, moved from North Carolina to the Netherlands and began unwittingly adopting his colleagues' Dutch accents during chats. But such behavior may not be appropriate in all situations, Leander says. Researchers recently showed, for instance, that when people in leadership roles parrot their subordinates, the underlings became mentally exhausted—a sign that their minds were working overtime to take in the odd behavior. No one expects a stern boss to suck up to them, Leander explains, and when that happens, "it can be weird."

The study. highlights that "social norms are really critical to follow in order to establish a good bond with people. It's a good reminder of just how much humans are swayed by reactions that they're not consciously aware of." Her body language. Leander says. agrees." says Eli Finkel. At the same time. Illinois. very impressed. he notes. "I was very. the idea that humans can feel their emotions in very physical ways. The study. he says." and in others. "I want to be friends. sure enough. In some cases she acted chummy. The students then filled out a survey designed to discover how cold or warm they felt. otherwise people are going to notice. such a deviation from social norms can feel awkward—or downright creepy. An experimenter separately interviewed 40 college undergraduates. "I'd rather keep this professional." He adds that while people can consciously use mimicry to get in good with certain associates. they should proceed cautiously: "You can't do it too much.To find out just how that weirdness might feel. "You can feel in your gut that it's not a good thing. for instance." he says. effectively combines several hot research topics. Leander says. however. . sent the exact opposite message. Individuals that describe themselves as lonely. subtly tweaking her behavior from person to person. dropping words like "awesome" into the conversation. On an instinctual level. the students in the study reported that they felt colder when the experimenter's social cues seemed somehow off—that is. By acting congenial or not." And they might just think you're a bit psycho. the interrogator alternated between mimicking the students' body language— slouching when they slouched or fidgeting when they fidgeted—and avoiding mimicking entirely. In others. the experimenter had set up basic expectations for the interview: in some cases. a social psychologist at the business school INSEAD in Paris. she was much more formal. a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston. The students could hardly be blamed for getting the willies. It may sound strange. And. William Maddux. when she was either acting friendly but not mimicking or seemed professional and did mimic—as the group will report in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science. but people often begin to feel cold when their social lives turn uncomfortable or otherwise unfulfilling—they literally get the chills. from behavioral mimicry to embodied cognition. take more frequent hot showers than their peers. Leander and colleagues designed a simple test.