I spoke to Psychology lecturers at the University of Edinburgh to find out what makes people snakey

The science behind you slithery snakes


We’re all familiar with snakes of the reptilian kind – those creepy legless creatures you're scared to death of and the inspirations for a stunning viral video, titled “I’m a Snake”.

However, there is a breed of snake that is even more common – the slithery backstabber type. These kinds of snakes can be disguised as anything from your best friend to an unassuming co-worker. They're always looking out for number one, and are infamously deceptive. That “friend” who only wants to hangout because they know you’ll pay for dinner, and the person who mysteriously disappeared from your project’s group chat without warning are both slithery snakes.

These snakes can be hard to pin down though, so I enlisted some experts to help you determine who is a snake, how to avoid them, and whether slithering is actually ever warranted. The dreamy dynamic duo consisted of Dr Rene Mottus, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, tag-teamed with Professor Wendy Johnson, a professor, also at the University of Edinburgh. Both doctors have children and are well aware of the snake-eat-snake world we live in today, making this operation a whole lot easier.

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Left: Dr Rene Mottus | Right: Professor Wendy Johnson

The telltale signs that someone is probably a snake

As it happens, our intuitions are more powerful than we might have thought. If you think someone is a snake, they probably are, and it isn’t uncommon that first encounters with some leave us feeling rightfully unsettled.

I learnt about psychological experiments that have shown that when multiple participants observe one subject, they all share the same intuitive sense of what that person is like. Some participants in these studies might have known the subject for years, and some for only minutes, yet everyone seems to see that person in the same way.

However, the experts told me that there isn’t strictly a certain type of person who is more slithery than others, as a tendency to slither can apparently be a manifestation of a range of traits. Charismatic people aren't always manipulative, and boring people aren't always trustworthy.

How to avoid the snakes

I wanted to know what Dr Mottus does when he encounters a snakey person. "I just generally stay away from people, I guess that’s pretty good", he commented. I think we can all agree that's the most valuable life lesson you'll ever get.

Admittedly, it can be hard to keep away from the general population, but Professor Johnson also suggested that when you meet someone who seems really socially-oriented (a social-climber, if you will), you should just walk away. When someone’s perception of success has to do with social recognition that’ll be something they’re constantly working at, thus making them more likely to manipulate.

Professor Johnson also added that snakes tend to double up as narcissists, saying that "narcissists in particular tend to be quite insecure, and those who don’t get as much recognition as they think they deserve tend to strike back." In can be hard to give a narcissist the kind of affirmation they're seeking, and it's a scary thought that a lack of affirmation could lead to some kind of punishment.

Dr Mottus added that, if you ever have to confront people like that, it’s best to do it as openly and as respectfully as you can, so that you stay on their good side.

Is slithering ever okay?

I'll leave you with some words of wisdom from Dr Mottus: "There are multiple ways to succeed in life, and I guess slithering is one of the strategies. Some people are snakey, some are hard-nosed, some try to be sincere – it doesn’t always win, but it sometimes does."