It’s a safe bet that everyone reading this has been or will be annoyed at some point today. And what’s really annoying is how often you can’t explain why something bothers you.
Introducing Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us
by NPR’s Joe Palca and Science‘s Flora Lichtman. This brilliant book gives the physiological, psychological and neurological reasons why you get pissed off.
Will all of this make the world less irritating? No, but you can have a smug and satisfied moment of peace while you read.
The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, annoying universally, may trigger a vestigial response to the sound made by a prehistoric predator
Sounds, how and why they annoy, provide some of the more basic ideas behind annoyance. Why? There seems to be more consensus, which means science has a better chance of arriving at some kind of conclusion. In fact, when subjects are asked to rate noises for annoyance, the number one annoying noise, across the board, was the sound of finger nails across a chalkboard.
While science can't pinpoint why this noise among so many is one of the universal triggers, theories, of course, abound, as in the vestigial reflex. We can, however, enjoy the idea of the world joining hands around a common peeve.
Sirens use a rapid change in amplitude, designed to distress the human ear, to make us get the hell out of the way
The shift in amplitude is called roughness and the greater it is, the more difficult it is to tune out.
The art of siren development reveals one of the many things we know about why certain sounds annoy. This allows musicologists to remove what is annoying - middle frequencies, it turns out - or make them more so.
We succumb to trash talk or the annoyance of other uncontrollable sounds because we can't make it stop
We understand the power of trash talk through the study of bugs. They teach us about irritations not in our control, like the mosquito buzzing in your ear. That is when annoyance, to some extent, becomes the only recourse and go there (at least some of us), we do.
Some people can learn to tune the buzzing (of man or bug) out, others simply can't and never will. We can see evidence of this scientific truth on playing fields and courts every day.
Like nails on the chalkboard, skunk is a universally annoying smell, unavoidable and seemingly eternal. Alas, there is a serious dearth of people willing to shoulder the ostracization that results from interaction with the skunk's unacceptable and unavoidable stench. Stink in the name of science is still, well, funk.
Even so, certain things are known, and we thank the brave, solitary souls who discovered them.
In the face of this eternal fetor, we react strongly because in order to cope calmly with a noxious stench, we need to believe that it is finite or can eventually be ignored.
You get annoyed because you notice something annoying - when you don't notice, psychologists call it inattentional blindness
Whether you fail to notice or you have learned to block it out, you have to pay attention in order to be annoyed.
You can go to your (happy) inattentional blind place and remain unfazed or, due to lack of practice or emotional inability to block things out, you are going to notice the annoyance and get irked. The baseball pitcher who is unnerved by a sudden swarm of gnats in his face during his first game could well be inured to the little beasts by the end of the season. Another player might never get over it and he is likely not long for the sport.
When we get annoyed, we snap out of our stupor and react to what is about to roll over us. In times of imminent danger, this is a very good thing indeed.
That sound you just heard the car make, a cross between a a child being tortured and a pipe being dragged across the ground at high speed? Something might be about to break and, if so, it is a good thing you found it jarring. The sanity-compromising recitation of dull facts identifies the speaker as one to avoid in the future. The funk that lurks behind the first whiff of milk says it is going to curdle that otherwise lovely cup of coffee.
Yes, this is a celebration of and giving thanks for the unpleasant.
It is apocryphal that Eskimos have thirteen ways to say snow (they have just the one), but it is true there are cultures without irritation of the annoying variety. One such place was studied by anthropologists: Ifaluk is a coral atoll, in the Yap State of the Federated States of Micronesia.
This tiny place (its entire land mass is about half that of NYC's Central Park) has three times the rain fall of Seattle, close to one hundred inches per year. And, to keep things fun, every so often typhoons blow through, entirely flattening the island. It is hard to get there, and even harder to get out. Oh, and only 600 people live there, so social issues take on great significance.
In that distant culture, people use nuanced vocabulary to describe away the annoyance we let rip in words and action
For the Ifaluks 'One person's anger (song) entails another's fear (metagu); someone's experiencing grief and frustration creates compassion/love/sadness (fago) in others.'
Their words express their feelings and have a rich vocabulary to express a variety of states of annoyance.
- tipmochmoch - annoyance that comes with feeling ill
- lingeringer - annoyance that builds from a series of minor but unwanted events
- nguch - annoyance with relatives who do the Ifaluk equivalent of failing to show up for a holiday dinner
- tang - the frustration that occurs 'in the face of personal misfortunes and slights which one is helpless to redress' (Lutz)
- song - justifiable anger (the authors translate this as 'You've done something that pisses me off. I know it, and you know it. But because expressing that annoyance would be inappropriate, I'll let it go, and so will you.'
In the end, there is a societal mandate to not get pissy with others. To do so is to risk ostracization.
Americans are annoying to the world because we are individualists who think we can and should control our world
Science tells us we get annoyed (and how much) because of our sense of 'self,' not because we have to in the face of what is annoying. It is culturally dictated, learned behaviour.
Japan offers the perfect opposite to the American self. Americans are raised to view themselves as individuals first, to see ourselves as a single, independent unit seeking control over our environment, influencing the world around us. The Japanese have an 'interdependent sense of self.' They are part of a collective in which they function for the betterment of the whole.
In Japan, teenagers aren't automatically annoyed by their parents because parents are part of family and teenagers think of themselves as part of the family.
Psychologists point to a word as a starting point for understanding the vast divide that separates the diverging sensibilities -
- amae - the Japanese word meaning 'a state of happy dependence'
We lack entirely a word in English that means exactly this. There may be a good reason for that. The closest scenario is perhaps the mother-child relationship, for which we have no distinct word. A baby or child can do to someone what would otherwise be unacceptable. And, really, even then, it is no amae.
Because we see ourselves as separate, there is a leap to even the most basic of favours. In Japan, the individual is part of the community as a whole, so watering the neighbour's plants is no big deal. So much for the talk of it taking a village.
It stands to reason if you see yourself as part of a greater whole, it doesn't occur to begrudge the need to do for the other parts of that whole. And this correlates to a culture that is far less quick to get annoyed with friends and strangers alike, seeing themselves as much more connected to and responsible for others.
I guess if you can see yourself as part of the gestalt, including the gum-snapping schmuck next to you on the subway, your reproach is bound to be more gentle. Maybe.
How much empathy you can feel, how able to put yourself in another's shoes, has a lot to do with how annoyed you are likely to get
Those challenged (due to physiological make-up or a diagnosis like autism or Alzheimer's) find themselves annoyed a lot more than others.
If you can imagine how someone else feels (or think you are there already, as the case may be), you will be more tolerant, less inclined to respond with annoyance. The empathically-challenged, on the other hand, can spend a lot of time seething.
Your brain when annoyed: blood rushes to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the emotional, non-rational area
The limbic system, in the forebrain, acts as a 'gatekeeper between automatic or unconscious processes and more conscious processes.'
We go about our lives, relatively unthinking, nary an irk or peeve noted. And then, bam!, the jerk in front of you brakes suddenly, and you switch to conscious mode and react to the (presumed) stupidity with a big rush of blood and a great deal of cursing. Expectations were jarred by the ride suddenly not proceeding as you expected, and you quickly had to use a different part of your brain in order to manage it. You are now, officially, annoyed.
What is forever is intolerable now and because it is forever.
This is why we are more likely to be irked by what would be barely worthy of note in anyone else. A nose getting blown, a stupid joke being told at a dinner, a certain emphasis put on the zippering up of a coat (join me, you know you can), these are the stuff of a flinch, if not a fight, when the person doing them is likely to be a recurring character in all your days going forward.
At the start of relationships, you suck in your gut (personality and stomach), but you can't do that forever. Then the yelling beings
In private, we (mistakenly, blindly) expect things to conform to how we want them or believe we will be better able to control what will happen.
So, when we get home, we think we have the right to demand that our spouse, for example, exercise a little self-control and not clip toenails at the table. This is not the case for the guy on the subway whose bit of nail just bounced up and sits lodged on your pant leg just begging for a fight.
Rather remarkably and flying in the face of experience, history, and good reason we believe life is fair.
The technical term for this complete and utter lack of reality is called the 'equity theory,' and it adds to the contretemps that is dinner time in many a household. When we believe we are being treated fairly, we are more likely to be reasonable and tolerant. When we think the short end of the stick is ours, every click of the pen or door left ajar becomes reason for outrage.
And, science and real-life experience tells us, repetition in all forms is (or can be) maddening. When you have a lifetime, once a month is too much.
It is optimism that allows us to expect the world to perform rationally and predictably. And that expectation allows us to learn, grow, and experience. When optimism proves to have been misplaced, when the world is, for that moment, gross, stupid, obstructing, too loud, or just not quite right, we get annoyed. And we should see this as a good thing.
Our ability to get annoyed and the thumb are what place us where we are in the food chain.
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