2 (1)Compared to the less powerful, more powerful people feel more entitled to be treated fairly, are quicker to identify an instance in which they are mistreated, and more likely to take action in response.

These are the findings of a new study by social psychologist Takuya Sawaoka and colleagues. They defined power as “disproportionate control over other people’s individuals’ outcomes.” I imagine someone who is a boss, perhaps, or a police officer, professor in a classroom, or patriarch of a family, or even just people who are wealthy and can pretty much pay people to do anything they want.

The scholars review the literature showing that people with power are entitled to a disproportionate share of resources and more likely to cheat, steal, and lie. They hypothesize that this “individual variability in entitlement shapes people’s reactions to injustices that they experience” and designed a series of studies to test it.

In the first study, participants were primed to feel either powerful or powerless by being asked to write about and reflect on a situation in which they felt they had power over someone else or, alternatively, someone had power over them. They were then instructed to play a game with a confederate (unknown to them) who had ten tokens that they could divide up however they pleased. Participants who had been primed to feel low power expected to get less than half the tokens, but participants who had been primed to feel powerful expected a fair outcome.

They then tested individuals’ sensitivity to unfairness. They showed people primed to feel powerful and powerless distributions of tokens that looked liked this, but with varying amounts, and asked them to indicate whether the distribution was fair or unfair.

2 (1)

Their measure of sensitivity was how quickly the person identified the distribution as unfair. Their findings showed that, when they were the victim of unfairness (see the second pair of columns from the left), people feeling powerful were quicker to identify it as unfair (a lower bar = faster) than were people feeling powerless.

But, when they benefited from unfairness (see the pair of columns on the far right), people feeling powerful were slower to identify it as unfair than when they were the victims and slower than people who felt powerless.

2

They had similar findings when people primed to feel powerful didn’t directly benefit, but simply observed other people being treated unfairly. And, they tested whether their findings extended to interpersonal justice, too, by asking how people responded to being socially excluded. They found the same pattern.

Finally, they found that, when being treated unfairly, participants primed to feel powerful were quicker to take action than those primed to feel powerless. The two columns on the left below show that high power people quickly left a hypothetical employer for a different one if they were treated unfairly.

3

So, to conclude, people who are primed to feel powerful feel entitled to fair treatment — both economically and socially — and are quick to recognize and correct it when they are treated unfairly, but they are significantly less likely to notice or care when the less powerful are injustice’s victims.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists — some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, and television shows. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture, but celebrate it and render it “sexy.”

Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique, though it reproduces the notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise). In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting:

What do you mean?
Ohh ohh ohh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?

The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well — not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).

The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers.

They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually an orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her — also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video.

Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY) and CJ Pascoe is a sociologist at the University of Oregon. Pascoe is the author of Dude, You’re a Fag:  Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, and together they are the editors of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change.

2 (1)Television evangelist Pat Robertson once described feminism as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” His comment is frequently used as a particularly extreme version of the feminist stereotype, but how far are his sentiments from those of the general public?

A more systematic investigation into what people think about feminists found that many people think that feminists are ugly, uptight, angry, aggressive, harsh, strident, demanding, dogmatic, man-hating lesbians… or think other people think they are. Only 26 percent of people say that feminist is a positive term.

This suggests that actual feminists have lost control over their own reputation. It would be counterproductive, after all, for feminists to portray themselves as unlikeable. Negative stereotypes about feminists, instead, are likely spread by anti-feminists.

Anti-suffrage campaign material is one example. The images below — from the collection of Catherine Palczewski — tell a story about who the feminist women fighting for suffrage are and what they want. It’s all pre-1920s, but the stereotypes and fears are similar.

Feminists are ugly:

3

Feminists are manly:4

Feminists neglect their natural role as a mother/are uncaring toward children:13

They’re angry:12

They want to emasculate men and take their role:1a

They’re mean to their husbands, if they can get married at all:2OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They don’t want equality with men, they want to dominate them:1a11

Next time you hear that feminists are ugly or hate men — or any number of stereotypes about women who seek equality — remember that this is exactly what anti-feminists have wanted you to think for the last 200 years.

Thanks to Jay Livingston for the tip! Postcards from: Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Sociologists Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams wanted to know. They and their team interviewed 172 college students about their habits and concerns about farting and pooping. They published their results in an article called Fecal Matters. They discovered that everybody farts and everybody cares, but not everyone cares all the time or equally.

They separated their results by gender and sexual orientation. When they asked people if they were worried that the hearer would “feel disgust,” heterosexual women were most likely to agree and heterosexual men the least, with non-heterosexual men and women in the middle, but flipped such that men were more worried than women.

2

Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in “intentional flatulence.” Almost a quarter said that they “often” did so, whereas only 7 percent of heterosexual women said the same. “Guys would say it’s raunchy and then say ‘Nice one,’” explained one heterosexual guy, “because if it’s strong it’s more manly. You know, because women would not try to clear a room with a fart.” Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: “The worse it stinks,” said one, “the nastier they think I am.”

Heterosexual women were the most concerned that it would affect their relationship with the hearer. They were also the most likely to do things to reduce the likelihood that others would detect their bathroom activities, like go into another room to pass gas or let their stool out slowly to avoid a kerplunk. Two thirds said they would wait until they were alone to poop and only women reported flushing repeatedly to ensure that the sights and smells of their defecation had disappeared.

As a counter example, one of the heterosexual men interviewed said that the only thing he was willing to do to protect others from his bathroom activities was close the door.

Non-heterosexual men were an interesting conundrum. They were as likely as heterosexual men to think that the hearer would think it was funny, but the least likely to engage in intentional flatulence and the most likely to make sure that when they poop, they do so alone.

Non-heterosexual women were also a conundrum. They were the least likely to think the hearer would laugh at a fart, but second only to heterosexual men in the practice of farting on purpose to get a reaction.

This study is a great example of what social scientists call doing gender, modifying our behavior to conform to gendered expectations. Generally, women are expected to have better control of their body, to be more polite, and to avoid offending others. All of these things are consistent with being more discreet with farts and poops.

The interesting data from non-heterosexual men and women may be explained by the conflation of sexual object choice and the performance of gender. It’s not universally this way, but in the U.S. today gay men are feminized and lesbians masculinized. This is a stereotype, but also gives non-heterosexual men and women some permission to deviate from gender rules. As one non-heterosexual man explained:

Only around people that I’m regularly naked with would I be comfortable with them knowing what I was doing in the bathroom. I’m on the self-prescribed “pretty pill”—where you don’t fart, sweat, burp, or use the bathroom… I learned it from my diva friends.

Similarly, some non-heterosexual women may feel a little less pressure to be as girly or girly all the time.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)A substantial body of literature suggests that women change what they eat when they eat with men. Specifically, women opt for smaller amounts and lower-calorie foods associated with femininity. So, some scholars argue that women change what they eat to appear more feminine when dining with male companions.

For my senior thesis, I explored whether women change the way they eat  alongside what they eat when dining with a male vs. female companion. To examine this phenomenon, I conducted 42 hours of non-participant observation in two four-star American restaurants in a large west coast city in the United States. I observed the eating behaviors of 76 Euro-American women (37 dining with a male companion and 39 dining with a female companion) aged approximately 18 to 40 to identify differences in their eating behaviors.

I found that women did change the way they ate depending on the gender of their dining companion. Overall, when dining with a male companion, women typically constructed their bites carefully, took small bites, ate slowly, used their napkins precisely and frequently, and maintained good posture and limited body movement throughout their meals. In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally constructed their bites more haphazardly, took larger bites, used their napkins more loosely and sparingly, and moved their bodies more throughout their meals.

The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men
The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men

On the size of bites, here’s an excerpt from my field notes:

Though her plate is filled, each bite she labors onto her fork barely fills the utensil. Perhaps she’s getting full because each bite seems smaller than the last… and still she’s taking tiny bites. Somehow she has made a single vegetable last for more than five bites.

I also observed many women who were about to take a large bite but stopped themselves. Another excerpt:

She spreads a cracker generously and brings it to her mouth. Then she pauses for a moment as though she’s sizing up the cracker to decide if she can manage it in one bite. After thinking for a minute, she bites off half and gently places the rest of the cracker back down on her individual plate.

Stopping to reconstruct large bites into smaller ones is a feminine eating behavior that implies a conscious monitoring of bite size. It indicates that women may deliberately change their behavior to appear more feminine.

I also observed changes in the ways women used their napkins when dining with a male vs. female companion. When their companion was a man, women used their napkins more precisely and frequently than when their companion was another woman. In some cases, the woman would fold her napkin into fourths before using it so that she could press the straight edge of the napkin to the corners of her mouth. Other times, the woman would wrap the napkin around her finger to create a point, then dab it across her mouth or use the point to press into the corners of her mouth. Women who used their napkins precisely also tended to use them quite frequently:

Using her napkin to dab the edges of her mouth – finger in it to make a tiny point, she is using her napkin constantly… using the point of the napkin to specifically dab each corner of her mouth. She is using the napkin again even though she has not taken a single bite since the last time she used it… using napkin after literally every bite as if she is constantly scared she has food on her mouth. Using and refolding her napkin every two minutes, always dabbing the corners of her mouth lightly.

In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally used their napkins more loosely and sparingly. These women did not carefully designate a specific area of the napkin to use, and instead bunched up a portion of it in one hand and rubbed the napkin across their mouths indiscriminately.

Each of the behaviors observed more frequently among women dining with a male companion versus a female one was stereotypically feminine. Many of the behaviors that emerged as significant among women dining with a female companion, on the other hand, are considered non-feminine, i.e. behaviors that women are instructed to avoid. Behavioral differences between the two groups of women suggest two things. First, women eat in a manner more consistent with normative femininity when in the presence of a male versus a female companion. And, second, gender is something that people perform when cued to do so, not necessarily something people internalize and express all the time.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kate Handley graduated from Occidental College this month. This post is based on her senior thesis. After gaining some experience in the tech industry, she hopes to pursue a PhD in Sociology. 

 

2 (1)In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”

**********

I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

2 (1)Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”

x

At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Whocan pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers.

x

Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her interests are in qualitative and feminist research and what gender-boundary crossing can teach us about the flexibility of gender, the mechanisms for reproducing gender hierarchies, and the potential for reorganization. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

2 (1)What creeps us out? Psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke wanted to know.

Their hypothesis was that being creeped out was a signal that something might be dangerous. Things we know are dangerous scare us — no creepiness there — but if we’re unsure if we’re under threat, that’s when things get creepy.

Think of the vaguely threatening doll, not being able to see in a suddenly dark room, footsteps behind you in an isolated place. Creepy, right? We don’t know for sure that we’re in danger, but we don’t feel safe either, and that’s creepy.

 

They surveyed 1,341 people about what they found creepy and, among their findings, they found that people (1) find it creepy when they can’t predict how someone will behave and (2) are less creeped out if they think they understand a person’s intentions. Both are consistent with the hypothesis that being unsure about a threat is behind the the feeling of creepiness.

They also hypothesized that people would find men creepy more often than women since men are statistically more likely than women to commit violent crimes. In fact, 95% of their respondents agreed that a creepy person was most likely to be a man. This is also consistent with their working definition.

Generally, people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t follow social conventions were thought of as creepy: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, stood closer to other people than was normal, dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, or laughed at unpredictable times.

Likewise, people who had taboo hobbies or occupations, ones that spoke to a disregard for being normal, were seen as creepy: taxidermists and funeral directors (both of which handle the dead) and adults who collect dolls or dress up like a clown (both of which blur the lines between adulthood and childhood)

If people we interact with are willing to break one social rule, or perhaps can’t help themselves, then who’s to say they won’t break a more serious one? Creepy. Most of their respondents also didn’t think that creepy people knew that they were creepy, suggesting that they don’t know they’re breaking social norms. Even creepier.

McAndrew and Koehnke summarize their results:

While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual nonverbal behaviors… odd emotional behavior… or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This activates our “creepiness detector” and increases our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question.

Re-posted at Mental Floss.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.