Do not lick your fingers when you’re done eating — if you’re licking your fingers, it’s time to accept that the bag of chips is finished. Move on. On that note, don’t crinkle the bag while you retrieve your snacks, and don’t smack your lips. Don’t kiss in the elevator or bite your nails and spit them out on the subway. Don’t say you’ll “ping” me unless you intend to make a high-pitched, metallic sound with my body. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
These are a few of the vast many annoyances I encounter on a daily basis — surely you have your own list. But I have a website on which I can broadcast mine and you don’t, so you get to be subject to this. Perhaps this is one of your annoyances.
(More on TIME.com: “Where Does Fear Come From? (Hint: It’s Not the Creepy Basement)”)
If you are someone who is as easily annoyed as I am, however, you’ll thank me for the conversation below. I spoke with the authors of Annoying: the Science of What Bugs Us, Joe Palca, a science correspondent at NPR, and Flora Lichtman, NPR’s Science Friday multimedia editor. Their new book helps us understand why we get so bent out of shape over trivial matters — and might even help keep us from boiling over all the time.
I’m so glad you wrote this book, because I am someone who is very easily annoyed. What inspired the research and, more importantly, were you annoyed the whole time you were researching it?
Flora Lichtman: You’re in good company because I also am chronically annoyed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why these little things get such a big rise out of me. Because the funny thing about annoyances is that they are, by definition, really trivial and yet I can’t seem to control my reaction to them.
So the “eureka moment” for this book for me was on the subway in New York City. I was riding from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn up to midtown Manhattan where I work, and the guy next to me pulls out a nail clipper about one stop in and just goes at it for like 30 minutes. I mean, he was really doing a super thorough job at clipping his nails. And my blood pressure was going up, I was starting to sweat — I couldn’t control my reaction. And I got to thinking, ‘Well, why is that? This isn’t putting my life in danger, obviously.’ So I talked to Joe about it and instead of laughing it off for being such a trivial topic, he though it was actually something we could do.
Joe Palca: It is the most widely experienced and least studied of all human emotions. I just thought that paradox was interesting. It’s not rage, it’s not love, it’s not anger, but it’s ubiquitous and it has this really bizarre quality that nobody likes to experience it, but everybody likes to talk about it. It appealed to me because I have a Ph.D. in psychology and when I was doing my work for my oral graduate exams, I don’t remember anything about annoyances coming up. That’s been about 30 years, but I don’t think the literature has been populated ever since about annoyances.
What is your working definition of annoying, and how do you think it differs from frustration or agitation?
FL: I think we had a lot of trouble with that because the people we talked to — the experts, who study different emotions — disagreed about what it was. Some thought it was low-level rage, others likened it to frustration. But one thing we agreed on: what differentiated it from anger is that you don’t top out as high with annoyance.
(More on TIME.com: “Why Your Embarrassment Causes Me So Much Pain”)
JP: Clearly there’s overlap with a lot of the things you’re describing. There’s disgust, there’s irritation, there’s frustration. We were trying to come up with a definition that would help differentiate it from that: we call it the “Three U’s.” First of all, it’s unpleasant. That’s sort of a catch-all because that’s where there’s so much individual difference: some people just don’t feel so bothered by fingernail clipping — probably the person who is clipping his nails doesn’t feel like he’s bothering anybody. So there’s this huge category of things that we don’t like — not dangerous, not life threatening, but unpleasant.
Another “u” is unexpected, in the sense that you don’t really have control over it and you don’t know when it’s going to happen. You might think that your subway ride will be unencumbered by somebody taking care of personal hygiene, but sometimes it isn’t and so you’re sort of stuck with that.
And then the third thing is you don’t know when it’s going to end, and that’s really an interesting component of annoyance. If this [nail clipping] person were unfortunate enough to have only one finger, you’d be satisfied that the nail clipping wouldn’t take that long. But with ten, it can go on and on as Flora says, for an unbelievably long time. That uncertain duration seems to add to the quality of what makes something annoying.
Now there are certain things that are just annoying on the face of it like, for example, you’re instantly annoyed by somebody’s voice or your instantly annoyed by somebody spitting on the sidewalk (if that’s one of your annoyances). So you can be annoyed without having something go on for an uncertain amount of time, but once it starts going on for an uncertain amount of time, then you run the risk of what Flora has termed “terminal annoyance.” That’s when you’re not only annoyed with what you’re annoyed at, but you’re annoyed with yourself for being annoyed. And that leads to a death spiral. There’s this feedback loop and we’ve heard unsubstantiated reports that people’s heads have exploded. But we haven’t been able to confirm that — it just seems like it would happen.
That’s true — sometimes my head explodes. So aside from the three U’s, what were some of the common characteristics of things that annoyed people in your research?
JP: Well, fingernails on the blackboard seems to be one of the things that everybody is irritated by, and we could call it annoyed. Oh, and the feeling of having to vomit is also something that nobody seems to enjoy.
FL: But I don’t know if that’s annoying. To me that’s nauseating.
JP: Right. Well, we did start the book with something that Flora discovered, which has to do with cell phone conversations — ironically enough, what I’m doing right now with you. I’m probably annoying people near me in my office.
FL: Yeah, I don’t know if everybody in the world is annoyed by this, but there does seem to be a biological component to why we might get annoyed by cell phone conversations. I would have thought this is just a rudeness issue: somehow we decided that it’s rude and so that’s why it’s annoying. But, it turns out that there are researchers who actually studied this and one of the questions they asked was, “What’s your brain doing when you’re hearing half a cell phone conversation, and is it different from hearing just intermittent noise?” It seems like it is, because when they played garbled cell phone conversations for people in this study, they didn’t get annoyed. But when they played the speech of a “halfalogue” as the researchers dubbed it, people did get distracted and they performed worse on their tasks.
(More on TIME.com: “Why Hearing Half of a Cell-Phone Conversation Drives You Nuts”)
When you talk to linguists it makes sense because one thing the brain does when we hear speech is it works constantly to try to predict the next word out of the speaker’s mouth. And this is unconscious — you do this whether you want to or not. And when you’re hearing half of the conversation, it’s really hard to do that prediction because you don’t have all of the context. And so your brain is working a little bit harder, and that draws you in a little bit more and then you’re really less capable of doing the thing you want to be doing. And that seems to be part of what’s annoying. And so the researchers reasoned that maybe we think it’s rude because of this biological component of not being able to tune it out. We decided it’s rude because of the biology and not the other way around.