Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us

Summary Written by Lindsay Recknell
"I often wonder why we have the kinds of responses we have."

- Paul Garrity, as quoted in Annoying, page 237

The Big Idea

One Part Unpredictability, One Part Unpleasantness

"Or you could adopt the attitude of the Ifaluk islanders and simply accept the annoyance, realize that it’s an inherent component of the social milieu in which you find yourself, and move on. You could try that."- Annoying, page 243-244

There seems to be a recipe for what’s annoying and that recipe has three ingredients – unpredictability, unpleasantness and the certainty that it will end but the uncertainty of when. Annoyingness also seems to be related to the senses – how we hear, see or taste in certain situations impacts how irritated or annoyed we get. Research has shown that the sound of nails on a chalk board can be annoying because of the frequency or pitch of the sound – “the frequencies that contribute most to the annoyingness of the scraping sound are on the low end of the frequency range that our ear is most sensitive to.” (page 50) Ear preservation is one hypothesis to explain why the screech makes us cringe – “a sensible way to protect our hearing is to evolve an aversion to sounds that are damaging.” (page 51). Preventing, or at least lessening the effects of, annoyance takes patience and focus – intentional and conscious attention to what is annoying us and altering the situation to the best of our ability.

Insight #1

Inattentional blindness

"They bugged me, but you’ve got to deal with it."- Joba Chamberlain, as quoted in Annoying, page 85

There’s a story in the book about Joba Chamberlain, a rookie pitcher for the New York Yankees in 2007. It was game 2 of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. Chamberlain had just come into the game, the expectation that he could save his faltering team from losing the game. At first, he played as expected, creating plays and striking out batters, until the start of the eighth inning when everything changed. Unexpectedly, a swarm of insects descended on the field…gnat-like creatures know as midges. There were millions of them – non-biters but the sheer number of flying creatures was enough to put Chamberlain off his game – and the Yankees lost after 11 innings. “The midges got under his skin, so to speak” (page 85).

According to Mark Aoyagi, a sports psychologist at the University of Denver, “it’s simply not possible to actively ignore something that’s irritating you.” (page 85). The trick is to focus on something else – something else relevant to the game, the situation or the person – not to try to block out the annoyance, but instead to choose to focus on what’s relevant. This type of thinking is what psychologists call inattentional blindness, the idea that you can miss things that are literally under your nose if your attention is focused on something else. Had Chamberlain paid closer attention to the catcher’s mitt, the sound of the crowd, or the eyes of the batter, he may have turned his attention away from the midges and back to the game, creating a different outcome for him and his team.

The lesson here is intentional diversion. Focusing your attention on something else (rather than trying to ignore the annoyance) is key. Try it out, next time you find yourself on one of those situations.

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Insight #2

Control what we can control and the rest will take care of itself

"That is, your annoyance is related to your sense of optimism. Your hope that it will be over amplifies every additional second that you have to put up with it."- Annoying, page 9

When someone’s talking on their cell phone while I’m riding the bus, I can’t help but overhear – I listen in, my ears automatically tuning into the sound of their voice, and try to figure out what words are going to come out next.

According to researchers at the University of York, “our brains are always predicting what’s going to happen next, based on our current state of knowledge” (page 4), which is why cell phone conversations are so annoying – it’s hard to predict when the person will start talking again and what that person is going to say when he does open his mouth. It’s this unpredictability that’s so annoying – we have an easier time ignoring something that is stable, steady and routine. When things have a rhythm but are not predictable, it grabs our attention whether we want it to or not. This is where patience and control comes in. Similar to Chamberlain and how the intentional focus on something else could have bettered his game, we must make conscious choices to focus our actions on what we can control during the annoying situations in our lives.

While you’re on the bus, pick-up your own phone and call you mother. Maybe plug in your iPod or change seats so you’re out of earshot of the person on the phone. Change the aspects of the situation you can control – and the annoyance will take care of itself.

There’s no such thing as a Department of Annoyance Studies or anyone with the job title “Chief Annoyingist” in any field of study but we do know there are reasons people get annoyed and there are people studying why. Palca, Lichtman and their colleagues have barely scratched the surface of this new science, and still don’t have a solution to prevent getting annoyed. The inevitable question is “does the knowledge of what makes a super-annoyance annoying provide any hints on how to overcome it?” (page 243). Maybe. But until they find out, separating siblings using duck tape down the middle of the back seat seems to help. Just remember – you do have control over your focus and your actions. Make use of those accordingly.

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Get Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us on Amazon.

Flora Lichtman

Flora Lichtman is the multimedia editor for Science Friday on National Public Radio. Before coming to Science Friday, Flora worked at a NATO oceanographic lab in Italy, studying the effects of noise on marine mammals. She graduated from Yale University with a degree in Environmental Studies.

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