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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy via Getty Images

So do animals get annoyed?

JP: This is the thing. It depends on how liberal you want to be with the term. In capuchin monkeys, if you ask one monkey to do a task and give it a delicious and extremely satisfying grape, and then you turn to the monkey sitting next to it and say, “Do the same task for me and I’m going to give you this crummy piece of cucumber. They’re both nutritious,” the second capuchin will basically say “No way!” and refuse to play and take on this exasperated look. Is that annoyance? We think it might be.

Similarly, in chimpanzees: the trick was that the researcher would take a banana and put it under a pot and then bring a down a slide so that the chimpanzee couldn’t see the pot anymore. Then he replaced the banana with a piece of lettuce. When the slide went up and the chimpanzee was allowed to go over, she’d go over to the pot where the banana was supposedly hiding and lift it up. When the banana wasn’t there — instead there was some crummy piece of lettuce — she’d actually shriek, something that certainly wasn’t friendly.

But, again, here’s an interesting way of looking at it: when this anger happens in the capuchins or this response happens, it’s different from anger because with anger you can see the threat response is returned with bared teeth and hair standing on edge. But this is something smaller — it’s a shriek or a facial expression, but it’s not the same kind you get when the animal is clearly threatened by something physical. That’s why if it’s not annoyance, it’s something that isn’t traditional anger.

(More on TIME.com: “Why the Pain of Romantic Rejection Feels Like a Punch in the Gut”)

FL: And if you want to get really liberal with your definition of annoyance, physicists have come up with a term for materials that sort of like annoyance.

Wait, inanimate objects can be annoyed?

Yeah, I thought this was super cool. I was like, “Oh, if a magnet can get annoyed, than it’s fine that I’m getting annoyed.” It turns out that magnets can get “frustrated” — that’s the physics term.

What frustrates a magnet?

I know! What does frustrate a magnet? Well, it depends first of all on the type. Only a special kind of magnet called an antiferromagnet — not like the kind you have on your fridge — gets frustrated. The problem is that it has these competing forces where it wants its atoms to line up in a certain way, but it wants the spins to line up anti-parallel to each other. To make the internal structure of the magnet work and to satisfy all of the forces that are acting on it, there’s no really clear answer and so it shifts between arrangements of this internal component and if it does this flip-flopping around [trying to achieve the correct balance], it’s deemed “frustrated.”

Why are some people annoyed by other people in their entirety? For example, I have a friend who cannot watch Tom Cruise movies — just because he annoys her so much.

JP: Those are my favorite kind because then you have to explore it. I mean, maybe it’s his smirk. Yeah, there are people who seem to trigger that instantly — I know the feeling. There was a guy I’ve known from the first day I went to graduate school and he’s annoyed me from that day until now. We actually haven’t spoken very much in the last 30 years — I might not be so annoyed by him any longer, but I think I might be too.

FL: I don’t think we have a good answer for that. The science of annoyance is clearly very complicated. One thing we learned is that there are many facets, and even our three U definitions seem like just a place to start.

JP: But that’s the interesting thing here, the tongue-in-cheek and amusement factor. But it was astonishing to us that usually when we called up a researcher who was doing something related, such as frustration in magnets or annoyance in capuchin monkeys, their first reaction would be “Oh, come on, that’s ridiculous,” but as the conversation progressed, you started hearing “Oh, yeah, that’s sort of interesting … no, I don’t think anybody looked at that.”

And so we didn’t write an academic book — that’s clearly not what we were aiming to do. But I think that someone could. We might, in fact. There is a lot of research that bears on this topic and I think there could be a way to measure it. There’s no good tool for measuring it — it’s very subjective. But there are good tools for measuring anger and love and moods and happiness. And so if someone decided to make this into a real scientific study, I think they could. It’s possible that there would be some rules that began to emerge that were more systematic. 

So, having done this research, have you come up with some good ways to cope with your own annoyances? What do I do the next time I’m sitting next to someone who chews loudly, for instance?

FL: One thing is, you can restructure the annoyance. What I tried to think about when I was on the train is that, if this is what really captures my attention — this guy with the nail clippers — then life isn’t that bad, you know?

JP: There was this funny bit of research about how you can completely lose sight of something and really retrain your attention onto something different. And the example I’ve been giving is this famous video on the Internet — maybe you’ve seen it — of three people passing a basketball amongst themselves. The task is to watch this 45-second video and count how many times the ball passes between them, but they’re moving and weaving among another group in black shirts, and you’re told to calculate the ball movement only with the white shirts, so you have to pay a lot of attention to the scene in order to calculate the number of passes.

At the end of the 45 seconds, the researcher will say, “Well, how many times did they pass?” And the answer’s 13 or whatever it is, and the next question is, “Did you see the gorilla?”

For about half the subjects, the answer is, “What gorilla?” He plays the tape again for them without telling them to pay attention to the basketball and about halfway through, a man in a gorilla costume walks out, waves at the camera and then walks away again, and people just didn’t see it. It’s called “inattention blindness,” but we’ve been wondering whether there’s a way to apply this to taking your mind off something.

Now the truth is, you don’t know about the gorilla before you start watching the basketball video, so you’re not already annoyed by the gorilla. It might be harder to get the attention shifted once you’ve already become annoyed by something. But, certainly, there are a lot of people who, as a coping mechanism, will bring something that they really like to do. Like, I’m addicted to this game on my iPad, so if I had that with me, I probably wouldn’t even notice that the plane was late.

FL: The other thing is that, talking to psychiatrists, if you have illness, antidepressants work really well on irritability. And for everybody else, people who are healthy, things like eating snacks to keep your blood sugar up and trying to schedule your day so that you don’t have a lot of unexpected things — these types of things do seem to actually help cut down on annoyance.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next