The way your significant other chews. Your co-worker's ringtone. People who spell "definitely" "definately." Videos that won't stop "buffering." Traffic. "Halfalogues."Farmville.
You know what bugs you. But do you know why? In the new book "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us," two science journalists attempt to answer exactly that. We spoke to Joe Palca, an NPR science correspondent, and Flora Lichtman, multimedia editor for NPR's Science Friday, to find out why certain things drive us nuts.
Q: What on earth inspired you guys to research the science of annoyance?
A: You know, I'm one of these people that's sort of chronically annoyed. But I was riding (on the subway) from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the guy next to me pulls out a nail clipper and just keeps at it for 10 stops. My blood pressure starts to rise, I'm sweating, I'm thinking, "Why am I having this enormous reaction to something so trivial?" But being trained in science journalism, there's this hope that science can explain everything, including our own weird behavior, and that's really where it started. -- FL
Q: Are there any universal annoyances -- things that bug all of us?
A: One of the ones we talk about in the book is fingernails on a chalkboard. A few researchers from Northwestern looked into this question by analyzing the frequency of a fingernail scraping sound. It resembles maybe a primate warning call, so we have this encoded, averse reaction to it.
One other example we looked at was skunk spray. This is kind of a super annoyance -- the suggestion that a smell is coming can ward off a 500-pound bear from a 15-pound little furball. All it has to do is give an indication that a smell is on the way, and these giant predators cower in fear. It's not like skunk spray is really dangerous; it's really just the stench. One theory is it mimics the sulfur smell you find in areas that have no oxygen. Smells seem universal, but we talked to people who actually like the smell of skunk, because it reminded them of being at a picnic or something. So it's quite hard to find something that's universally annoying to everyone. -- FL
We postulate that cell phones are a modern universal annoyance. An overheard conversation is really hard to ignore -- there actually is a little bit of scientific research on this, why we’re drawn into these conversations, and why we can’t ignore them. -- JP
Q: So what makes something annoying?
A: One of the key things about what's annoying is what it's not: It's not deadly, it's not lethal -- it's minor. There are three characteristics: Unpredictable, in the sense that you get on the subway and you can't know or even control that the guy next to you is going to pull out a nail clipper. The second thing is it's unpleasant. I can't tell you what's going to be unpleasant to you, but as long as it's unpleasant to you, it's potentially annoying. The third is an uncertain duration. There's this optimism of, it's gotta stop sometime, but it's the uncertainty of when. And then there's "terminal annoyance" -- you become annoyed with yourself for being annoyed. There are unconfirmed reports of heads exploding. -- JP
Q: Could there ever be an upside to irritation?
A: I talked to some emotion researchers that say there are no bad emotions. Maybe it prevents you from doing something that thwarts your goals. If you get really annoyed during traffic, it's probably to your benefit that you avoid driving in rush hour. We also looked at chemical irritants, these things that in small doses are not dangerous -- like wasabi, or onion juice in your eye -- so this feeling of being irritated keeps you from exposing yourself to too much of something (that might be harmful). -- FL
One example we use is a baby crying -- the baby wants to annoy you so you will attend to its need. -- JP
Q: Is there a personality type who is more prone to being annoyed?
A: What we found is that a lot of annoyance is about things being out of your control. So if you tend toward liking to have things managed in your life, maybe annoyances are more acute for you. -- FL
There are some diseases that tend to make people more easily annoyed. With Huntington's, before you start developing the painful muscle problems that come with the disease, you seem to become more irritated. And people with depression are more prone to becoming more irritable. -- JP
Q: We have to ask: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
A: My biggest annoyance for sure is when I get annoyed with myself for being annoyed. -- FL
Unexplained delays I really find infuriating. Somebody knows why this plane isn't taking off, but they're not telling me. I don't know if I'm going to be sitting here for five minutes or an hour. -- JP
Your turn: What bugs you, and why? (We're annoyed somebody had this book idea before we did.)
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter @melissadahl.
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