What Annoys You? An Examination of the Little Things That Drive Us Bananas

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The nails on a chalkboard sound is visceral — whereas cell phones are a more social, theoretical annoyance — why do you classify these as the same?

JP: There’s an incredible variety of things that annoy people. I was surprised — a friend of mine asked her class what annoyed them and there were a lot of common answers, but one person wrote, “I’m annoyed by women who wear too much makeup.” So that seemed sort of odd. Also, we were doing a talk show [to promote the book] last week and someone said, “I’m annoyed when people pick lint off my clothing.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s so weird, I don’t even remember any time when I was standing there and someone came up and picked lint off my clothing.”

But these are things that tend to fit into a psychological component of annoyances because, for example, we found out in the lint circumstance that personal grooming was very important to this woman growing up and that failing in this area was something that she was criticized for, so [in her mind] this was her parents or family members who were picking lint off of her and that’s what annoyed her.

I think it’s similar for the makeup thing. Or, a lot of people are annoyed when people use speech improperly, and if you pursue it a little bit, you often find that these are people who have a very didactic training in the English language or maybe they’re editors or something like that, and it just drives them nuts when people get “affect” and “effect” wrong, or fail to have agreement between a pronoun and an antecedent.

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FL: Yeah, one thing that we found is that people’s annoyances have a lot more to do with them than with the actual objective act.

So are you suggesting that our annoyance response is sometimes innate, sometimes learned?

JP: Yes, exactly. We tried to divide every annoyance into what we called extrinsically and intrinsically annoying. Some things are annoying by their very physical properties like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a skunk — there is something unavoidably unpleasant about them to the point that some people find them annoying. And then everything else was extrinsically annoying: by themselves they are just a behavior, but some people add the cognitive component and they become annoying.

FL: We talked to a researcher, David Huron, who dubbed this a cognitive overlay — which I love and use all the time — where something takes on new meaning because of your own imposed context.

So how about you guys — what annoys you the most?

FL: I think for me it really is the terminal annoyance issue — annoyed with myself for being annoyed. I have found no way out of that, I just spin and cycle through. It’s the death spiral of annoyance.

JP: For me, it’s things like unexplained delays that really get me crazy like if you’re supposed to be on a plane that’s supposed to leave at two o’clock and its now 10 minutes to two and they haven’t boarded the plane and they haven’t said anything about when they’re going to board the plane. You know its going to be late, but the board still says that its leaving on time and they’re not telling you anything, and you know that you have a connection that you have to catch in order to get to a talk that you have to give. And if you go up, you know they’re going to say, “Well, we don’t know anything,” and it’s, like, “Why don’t you just say that instead of leaving us here? Maybe I should make other plans.” But, again, its not related to “Oh, I have to be someplace and that’s why I’m annoyed” — although that can make it worse — but I’m annoyed even if I don’t have to be someplace. I’m supposed to be on a plane at two o’clock and if we’re not on the runway at two o’clock, I get really frustrated.

FL: You must get frustrated a lot.

JP: Well, the other thing is the cathartic aspect of retelling the annoyance. I don’t want to be back in that situation, but I do enjoy telling people about it.

Why do some people get annoyed so easily and quickly, while others are more even tempered?

FL: We looked at this a little bit in the context of disease. So it turns out that people with depression are much more irritable. People who have this illness take things the wrong way — so little things that seem trivial that you might brush off if you were healthy get a real rise out of people.

And another illness that we looked at was Huntington’s disease. This is not the everyday person, but it really recast annoyance for me realizing that it can be really dysfunctional. And in people with the degenerative brain disease Huntington’s, one of the first symptoms they show is irritability — before other symptoms, even before the movement kicks called chorea that are the telltale sign of Huntington’s — even ten years before, there’s some evidence that people get more irritable. It’s to the point where they throw the salt shaker at their spouse for making dinner too salty or kick over their kids’ bicycles. Those were the examples that one psychiatrist gave me. It’s really annoyance to the point of complete dysfunction.

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JP: And there may indeed be a genetic component to this because there’s a researcher who works with a strain of mice called FIERCE, and these mice have a defect in a particular gene that makes them extremely easily disturbed. Now whether they are actually annoyed or not is a philosophical question about whether animals can get annoyed — because you can’t really ask them. But assuming that their behavior looks like they are annoyed, they have this gene and you can actually recover the normal mouse function; in other words, they will behave normally if you turn off the expression of this gene using the human version of the same gene to correct it. So there’s a human gene that’s the same, and this researcher is looking for a correlation between defects in this gene in humans and behavior. And she was looking in the realm of bipolar disorder, but the results aren’t definitive yet. But it really wouldn’t be surprising if there were some genetic background to make people more prone to annoyance.

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