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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.