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Why do we get so annoyed?

Although little research has been conducted into how things bug us, enough is known to identify some causes and solutions

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2011

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Buzzing insects are near the top of most lists. So are canceled flights, dead batteries, other people’s endlessly crying children. And don’t even mention fingernails scratching on a blackboard.

Doesn’t your blood pressure start to rise even just thinking about these things?

So it is with stuff that annoys us.

The irritants can feel like physical assaults, make our blood boil, and trigger the body’s “fight or flight’’ response.

But though being annoyed is a near-universal experience, very few scientists actually study it. The examination of anger, frustration, and neuroticism all date at least to Freud’s couch, but annoyance is largely overlooked as its own experience, according to science journalist Joe Palca, who has just published a book with colleague Flora Lichtman called “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us.’’

The book originated with Lichtman’s curiosity about why certain, largely unimportant things drive most of us wild. Palca, a correspondent with National Public Radio, said he was shocked at how little systematic research has been done on what irritates us and why so many of us routinely get aggravated.

“I believe that being annoyed is the most widely experienced and least studied of all emotions,’’ Palca said.

Even the most heinous of all sounds, fingernails on a blackboard, has only been seriously studied once. That was back in the mid-1980s, when Randolph Blake, now a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, was trying to develop software to process visual information - long before Photoshop or Guitar Hero. He and his colleagues thought it would be simpler to start with sounds instead of pictures, and began exploring sounds that triggered emotional reactions.

They exposed test subjects to a library of sounds. Not surprisingly, fingernails dragged across a blackboard brought the strongest emotional response. Blake and his colleagues thought people reacted so strongly because the scratching sounds a lot like the scream of a baby primate. Perhaps, they wrote in their study, this human aversion is an echo of the anxieties of our evolutionary ancestors.

Blake, also on the faculty at Seoul National University, said he’s gotten more attention for those few sentences written in 1988 than for all the vision research he has done since - which, of course, he finds somewhat annoying.

Paul Garrity, associate professor of biology at Brandeis University, thinks he may have found the evolutionary seeds of annoyance, in the reactions to one of nature’s most annoying creatures: the fly.

Garrity studies the fruit fly, which has an ability similar to our own to sense potentially dangerous chemicals, or pressure or temperature changes. That skill, to perceive possible dangers, may be the origin of the annoyance we feel today, he said.

“My guess is it was a gradual accretion of more and more sophisticated behaviors, but it probably arises from very primordial origins of ‘Oh, that hurt,’ ’’ Garrity said. “Reflexes that may have been originally used to respond to painful stimuli may now be used to respond to something we would think of as more psychological.’’

Socially we get annoyed at other people, perhaps because we don’t see them as providing us an evolutionary advantage, said Robert Hogan, a former psychology professor at the University of Tulsa who is now president of Hogan Assessment Systems, a personality assessment and consulting firm. The most annoying people, he said, are those who are unpredictable and unreliable, who will criticize you or stab you in the back.

“The things that annoy us are things that cue us that people are not going be a resource for the group or to you in your pursuit of acceptance and status,’’ he said.

Annoying people generally have no idea they’re being so annoying, he and other psychologists agreed.

Why do we sometimes react so emotionally to seemingly trivial sensations and behaviors?

“Any time you get an emotional reaction, it is nature’s way of telling you to pay additional attention to it,’’ said Michael R. Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville.

Cunningham says annoyance is a good thing, in the sense that it goads us into action.

“If we never felt irritation we would never avoid those people or situations that waste our time, cost us money, etc.,’’ he said. Annoyance, “is there to activate us to do certain things to the extent that we can.’’

Irritation also builds over time. The first time your spouse leaves dirty dishes in the sink, you can probably overlook it; the 300th time, you’re likely to be less understanding.

Cunningham has defined categories of what he calls social allergens - social acts that turn people off. These are things that the other person may or may not do intentionally, but that we often take personally, like people cutting their fingernails on the T, running red lights, or talking too much at parties.

Another social aspect of annoyance, Cunningham said, is that when we are really ticked off by our friends, it is often for the same basic reasons that originally attracted us to them. A woman may be attracted to a man’s stability and then grow to hate him for being dull; a friend once beloved for his sense of humor may be criticized for being unable to take anything seriously.

Some annoyances can be short-lived and inconsequential. Hopefully, you only run into the guy who cuts his nails on the T once, but you can keep telling the story about him for years. Other irritations, such as a partner’s nagging, can be repetitive, deeply disturbing, and hard to escape, Cunningham said, causing serious stress that can eventually lead to health problems.

Fortunately, we can train ourselves not to get annoyed - at least some of the time.

Have you ever noticed how people without children tend to get more impatient with a crying or misbehaving child than young parents do? The personal understanding of how difficult it can be to soothe a child often makes the event seem less annoying.

Cunningham’s advice for coping with annoyances: “You can leave the environment, you can change the environment, or you can do something inside yourself to change’’ your reaction. That could mean changing behaviors, such as doing deep breathing, counting to 10, or taking a walk. It could also mean deliberately changing your thoughts - deciding, for instance, to view a particular behavior as quirky instead of annoying. Or it could mean choosing to focus on accomplishments and pleasant things rather than irritations, he said.

Palca says he’s learned not to get annoyed about little things, simply by thinking about what he learned while writing his book. Getting delayed by two hours on a recent business trip, however, still pushed all his buttons.

“You’re only cured of being annoyed when you’re dead,’’ he said. “I’ve decided I’ll just live with some annoyance.’’

Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.

Social allergens

Psychology professor Michael R. Cunningham has defined the term “social allergens’’ to describe activities other people do to turn us off (of course, we never do these ourselves!). He’s broken them into four different categories, depending on whether they are intentionally annoying or aimed at a particular individual.

Impolite personal habits, such as public nose picking, knuckle cracking, passing gas, and lack of personal hygiene are not usually intended to annoy anyone, but are often perceived as annoying.

Inconsiderate activities, such as keeping someone waiting, checking e-mail repeatedly while you’re with someone, forgetting to pick up milk on the way home as you had promised - again, these activities may not be meant to annoy, but they can be aggravating.

Intrusive behaviors are intentional and directed at an individual, who is likely to become annoyed by them. Examples might include someone who insists on giving an opinion on everything, who nags, or who critiques your behavior.

Rule breaking, such as running red lights, not paying taxes, or smoking in a nonsmoking zone, may not be directed at a particular person, but it may violate your personal sense of what is right, and therefore be annoying.

Keeping your cool

It’s basically impossible to go through life without feeling annoyed at times.

To keep irritations on low, it can be helpful to start noticing what causes annoyance. By becoming more alert to irritants, you can potentially gain control over them. You may decide, for instance, that it’s not worth getting upset when you get stuck in traffic. Next time, leave earlier, or make the conscious decision to use the time to relax, listen to music, or dream of your next vacation.

If you find your annoyance level rising in general, it may be a sign that you need to get more sleep, that an important relationship is heading for the rocks (those formerly “cute’’ habits now seem increasingly aggravating), or that you are in the early stages of an illness.

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