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[cw: defense of finding people creepy. moebius, if you read this post, I will Frown.]

I recently finished reading Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. Its thesis is basically that humans have evolved for literally millions of years to be able to tell when other humans are up to Bad Shit. Therefore, when you get a weird feeling you can’t explain that another person is just bad news, that feeling isn’t actually causeless. Your intuition is systemizing information on a level that you don’t have access to. Bad feelings that you don’t have any good reason for are actually the most important kind of bad feeling– they’re the ones that are most likely to be the product of your intuition knowing something that your rational mind doesn’t.

I am pretty sure that his argument is accurate. However, the problem is that your intuition didn’t come from God knowing exactly what the signs of someone being bad news are. It learns from experience and from its surrounding environment. Sometimes it’s a personal quirk: a person might be scared of bald men because his rapist was bald. But sometimes most people share an intuition that a group of people is bad news. Most nonblack people are, on a certain level, scared of black men. Most neurotypicals parse autistic body language as alien and therefore threatening.

One random person finding you scary is just noise. Most people you interact with finding you scary is a Serious Problem.

Some people suggest that the solution is to ignore our intuition. But, as de Becker points out, intuition is an invaluable source of information. As a person read as female and a borderline, I am at tremendous risk of being raped or abused. I don’t want to throw away my best tool to prevent myself from being raped or abused.

Another solution is to consciously memorize what information your intuition is working from. The problem is that that means that, whenever you meet a new person, in the back of your mind, you’d have to have running your Are There Signs That This Person Will Hurt Me module. This is totally doable– many people who are routinely at risk of violence do it– but it’s also tremendously psychologically taxing. It’s harder to form relationships when you’re consciously thinking about whether the person will hurt you, and most people feel worse when they’re regularly thinking about the possibility of violence. In fact, that sort of suspicion is a kind of hyperarousal, which is a symptom of PTSD.

At the same time, I’m not sure that that would solve the problem. Because humans have been working off intuition for our threat assessment for so long, we don’t necessarily have a good model of what, exactly, our intuition is paying attention to. The factors we don’t know are relevant could hurt us. And humans are usually really bad at consciously reasoning with probabilities, even when we’re really good at subconsciously reasoning with probabilities: most people will give wildly wrong estimates about how confident they are in a belief, but they’ll still behave fairly rationally about, say, the risk of a car accident (at least more rationally than they would if they tried to do explicit probabilities).

Another solution is to only trust your intuition when it’s not about a group you know you tend to be afraid of. If someone is black or autistic, one might override their intuition; if someone is white or nonautistic, they might not. The problem here is that black people and autistic people are still sometimes up to Bad Shit; blanket trusting any group of people is a bad idea. On the other hand, perhaps this method could be combined with the conscious-reasoning method: if you are interacting with a group you tend to have inaccurate feelings about, then you should do conscious checks for red flags, but if you’re not, you can rely on your intuition. That could help with both situations.

I am not sure how to help this problem in general. One step might be to have fewer media depictions of Scary Black Men and so on, so that people’s intuitions stop learning that members of those groups are terrifying. Another would be for individuals to have friends who are members of groups they’re scared of (vouched for by other friends, of course) so that they can teach their intuitions that those groups are not actually scary.

It might also be good to attack it from the other angle: instead of making people’s intuitions more accurate, make people feel less bad about being a false positive. For a lot of people, coming off as creepy feels like they’ve done something morally wrong. But, as long as you don’t actually have ill intent, coming off as creepy isn’t morally wrong. In many cases, it is a product of another person’s subconscious racism, ableism, or other -isms; in some cases, it is a personal issue; in some cases, you accidentally did things that made other people feel uncomfortable, and while it is bad to deliberately do things that make other people uncomfortable, it can’t be wrong to make mistakes. People who find you creepy probably don’t want to interact with you, but the fact that they found you creepy doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.