'Annoying' Book Probes The Science Of Irritations

Can science explain life's daily annoyances? From the psychology of trash talk to frustrated magnets, NPR's Joe Palca and Science Friday's Flora Lichtman survey a broad swath of science to try to understand perhaps the most widely-experienced and least-studied feeling.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, a global affliction for which we are all at risk. Here are the symptoms: flushed face, sweaty brow. In more severe cases: surging blood pressure and a feeling that your skin is crawling. Ooh. No one is immune, and there is no cure. Worst yet, the cause is - lurk around every corner, maybe even in your home, like...

(Soundbite of lips smacking)

FLATOW: ...lips smacking...

(Soundbite of chewing)

FLATOW: ...loud eating...

(Soundbite of pen tapping)

FLATOW: ...pen tapping, long lines, cell phones. Of course, I'm talking about annoyances, the little things in life that other people do that get a big rise out of you.

Can science explain why that happens? That's the subject of a new book by NPR's Joe Palca and SCIENCE FRIDAY's own Flora Lichtman. To hear you chat about the science of what bugs us and we want to know what annoys you. What boils your bloo? Give us a call. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Joe and Flora.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE PALCA: Thank you, Ira.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks.

FLATOW: Do the same types of things, Joe, annoy most people or a specific thing for a specific people?

PALCA: We figured that if there are about 6.2 billion people on the planet, then there's probably about 6.1999 different opinions about what's really annoying on the planet. So...

FLATOW: That's an annoying statistic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: It - there, you know, it's really so subjective. There are things that seemed to cut across populations. You described some of them. A cell phone seems to be the modern most annoying thing. But really, it's amazing the diversity of the things that annoy people. I mean, the one that's really stuck with me as I've been going around lately is this person who is really annoyed when people pick lint off her clothing. And I've been thinking about that. I mean, who...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It seems too personal.

PALCA: How often does that happen to you, Ira?

FLATOW: You've broken the three-foot zone on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I've actually seen people do that.

PALCA: Yeah.

FLATOW: They stand there. While they're talking to you, they're picking off the lint.

LICHTMAN: Well, we were talking about it. It's sort of intimate, and maybe that's the...

PALCA: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...problem with it. But, Joe, it's true that we did find a few things that seemed to be universal annoyances. These annoyances that transcend race, gender, age, you know, ultra annoyances. And one, I'm going to play an example of one right now.

FLATOW: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of fingernail scratching on chalkboard)

FLATOW: Oh, I can't listen.

PALCA: Ooh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Ooh. You mean that's the sound of the Apple computer being turned on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Can we hear it again?

FLATOW: That could be one of the annoyances. That one really bugs me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It was a double annoyance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Yeah. Really.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

PALCA: Play that one again.

FLATOW: Let's play that one again.

LICHTMAN: Play that one more time, 'cause it really gives people the painful.

(Soundbite of fingernail scratching on chalkboard)

FLATOW: Ooh.

(Soundbite of fingernail scratching on chalkboard)

PALCA: You know, Flora, I've seen people rip their headphones off when they're watching that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: ...because that's a part of the movie that Flora made, and it's so painful for some people. They just cannot stand it.

LICHTMAN: And it's - what's amazing is that researchers have actually looked into why.

FLATOW: Fingernails...

PALCA: What it is - yeah.

FLATOW: ...on your chalkboard.

LICHTMAN: Why fingernails on the chalkboard is so annoying.

FLATOW: They really have studied that.

LICHTMAN: Because there's been a study on this, Ira. It's kind of amazing. It turns out that it seems to be something about this mix of frequencies that really does annoy people, and part of the theory is that it's the change in volume quickly over time. When you run your fingernails down a chalkboard, you have this sort of slip and stick production....

FLATOW: I'm trying not to watch the picture...

LICHTMAN: ...to cringe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (unintelligible) picture that. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And that means that the volume changes quickly, and our ears don't really seem to like that...

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: ...which may explain why it's like annoying.

PALCA: But this is a case where the modern world may have solved that particular annoyance because blackboards are disappearing.

FLATOW: Ah.

PALCA: So...

FLATOW: But their cell phones have taking over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: That's right. Exactly. We'll find something else to be annoyed by. No problem about that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PALCA: Styrofoam, I think was the other one that people really find, you know, when you rub two pieces of Styrofoam together that can be pretty horrible.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's true. The cell phones weren't actually - the king of annoyance himself, Larry David...

PALCA: Of course.

LICHTMAN: ...took...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...took on cell phones on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Maybe we can play a clip from it. Let me set the scene for you, though.

Larry David is sitting in a restaurant next to another guy, and this other guy is on his cell phone chatting loudly, and you can sort of hear him. And then, Larry David starts to get flustered and then begins talking to his - what he calls his other self across the table. There's no one sitting across the room, so he's having a one-sided conversation with no one. So let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) ...stars.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (as himself) I got someone on the line. So I was trying to brush my teeth with an apple. It was horrible, horrible.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Excuse me. Who are you talking to?

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) I'm talking to myself.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Well, you're doing it really loud.

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) Oh, really?

Unidentified Man: (as character) Yeah, yeah.

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) You're kind of talking loud yourself.

Unidentified Man: (as character) To a person.

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) What's the difference?

Unidentified Man: (as character) I'm actually conversing with another human being...

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) Oh, really?

Unidentified Male: (as character) ...a person than just...

Mr. DAVID: (as himself) To the outside observer, it's the same level of annoyance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, of course, that would be Larry David, because he probably wrote that and other annoying things on the "Seinfeld" episode where he gets a crank phone call, he gets a phone call and he says, can I call you back at home? He says, no. Why do you think you can call me back, right?

PALCA: Right.

LICHTMAN: That was a great scene.

FLATOW: But that's annoying too. That's an annoying thing..

PALCA: But what...

FLATOW: ...at dinner time you get those phone calls.

PALCA: But Flora found out and there's some really interesting research that shows that there is a particular reason that this other person's conversation that you can't listen to - it actually played in both directions here - it's like you can't stop listening. Why can't you just ignore that person? If it were just noise, if it were just random noise, you could ignore it. That's what the research shows.

But because there's content, your brain gets draw - sucked into the conversation and then you can't ignore it and you want to and you can't. And it's really annoying.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet that just came from themusicjunkie(ph) who says: slow talkers who have a lot to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: That wouldn't be us, would it?

FLATOW: You know, let's not even get into that topic. I don't want to. There's a lot to talk about there.

LICHTMAN: Well, it does seem that there is some annoyances that sort of keep you, prevent you from achieving your goals, you know, or slow you down in some way. A slow talker with a lot to say is kind of like sitting in traffic, when you think about it, because, you know, you're sitting there, you want to keep moving forward, you want this conversation to keep going.

FLATOW: And just think of all the annoying people and habits in traffic in drivers, the things that drivers that do.

PALCA: Oh, I have to say...

LICHTMAN: That seems to be a mind field for annoyance.

PALCA: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Joe, you're a bicyclist going through traffic, so...

PALCA: Well, I was just going to say, I've been telling people, I was turning into NPR in my bike the other day and the - I was waiting for traffic to stop so I could make a left turn. And this woman coming passed me in the other direction was applying mascara as she drove down the street. And I thought, holy smokes. That's annoying to me because I wanted to be attention to where she's going so.

FLATOW: Wow. How do - when you write a book about annoyances, how do you narrow it down with all the things that go on...

LICHTMAN: That's a great question, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I'm, you know - well, all the smart - the smarty-pants comments that are coming to mind are filtering out right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: But the answer really was that it was the - I think, Flora, I think you will agree - it was the hardest thing about the book in writing it. It was like, we had a blank canvass and we had to decide where to go, because there -I mean, in a lot of times, you know, if you're doing like electric cars, you talk to the electric car expert. I mean, it's not a problem. But there is no expert in annoying. And so we wound up going to physicists and acousticians and psychologists and anthropologists, all kinds of people.

Lots of things that we talked about that didn't get into the book, that's for, you know, annoying volume two, I suppose. But it really is the kind of research topic where almost every field of science has something to say about it. And it was really just the question of finding the interesting anecdotes, because you name it and there is something to do with annoying in that field of science.

LICHTMAN: Well, let me give you a very far out example. We were thinking, you know, is there a physics analog in annoyance? Can a material get annoyed? And it turns out you'll do a little Web searching and there's a branch of physics about frustration in materials. Glass, plastics, they get frustrated. But the biggest frustration in materials is in magnets.

Magnets are just very prone to getting frustrated. And what it means is that the atoms within them have - want to arrange in a certain way, and they want their electrons to spin in a certain way. And in some materials, there's a conflict between how they arrange and how they want their atoms to spin.

And very frustrated materials kind of don't know what to do about it. So they cycle through all these different things. They can't arrive at the right answer. And they're really frustrated.

FLATOW: Frustrated.

LICHTMAN: So that may sound familiar - to me.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PALCA: So this gets into the - yeah, exactly. But this gets into the difficulty about, you know, parsing what's annoyance versus frustration. I mean, of course a magnet doesn't get annoyed as a human gets annoyed. But there are overlaps.

I mean, I started asking - you know, Bob Hazen. I started asking him - he's a geologist or geophysicist - about what annoys a rock. You know, you think to yourself, a rock? But I decided that a lichen annoys a rock because it basically gets inside of it and starts breaking it apart. So there you go.

FLATOW: Well, but you're just assuming that.

LICHTMAN: Yes. Like most of this book, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right. What - yeah, exactly.

LICHTMAN: But there were some sort of interesting studies that you looked at, Joe, about what annoys other animals.

FLATOW: That's what I was going to ask, because, you know, what scientists do -you've covered science your whole life - is they find an animal model for being annoyed?

PALCA: Right.

FLATOW: Can - is there an animal model for annoying things?

PALCA: Well, you know, I think probably the most interesting was this strain of mice that were developed at Jackson Laboratory, called the fierce strain. And this is a mouse that's missing a particular gene that makes it really, really irritable. So at first, you know, I was cautioned by the researcher. Let's - we don't want to anthropomorphize. We don't want to call this annoying. We can't ask the mouse if they're annoyed, you know. Okay, I get it. And then, she went on to give me chapter and verse about how this mice - mouse acts really annoyed. And when you try - even try to lift it up, instead of just hanging there like a normal mouse, what it tries to bite you.

And so, she has used this particular genetic defect to look for similar things in human subjects, because humans have the same gene. And what happens when it's mutated and do you find this as something that has underpinning of human annoyance?

And Flora has looked into some of the diseases, the human diseases, that are represented initially by an increase in irritability. So you've got to believe that there is some thing, some biological thing that's going on. And yes - so you start with animals. It's quite common.

I mean, you start with fruit flies. You start with stickleback fish. We found that sticklebacks where studied by ethologists, famous ethologists, in understanding how they behaved. And the famous experiment of them getting crazy when they saw a red, mail delivery truck. What was that about? Well, it was a projection of the male coloring when a rival swims into the tank. So lot of things to learn about annoying from the animal kingdom, for sure.

FLATOW: I wonder if it says a lot of things to learn about how to cope without road rage, you know? How to cope correctly at the animal - from the animal kingdom, so they don't eat each other up and...

PALCA: Well, you know, that's...

FLATOW: ...I'm guessing.

PALCA: ...just, again, just to take that a little bit, I mean, I know it's a kind of a funny question, but we've come to a conclusion, a tentative conclusion anyway, that a lot of annoyances are sort of a product of the modern civilization. So that things that once upon a time, if you did this to me, I'd just kill you because I, you know, I could, now, we're all - we've all been socialized to know that that's not an appropriate behavior, so we have to internalize things that we would otherwise act out on.

And so I think, you know, there's something to be said for understanding how to control your emotions because it's part of what allows civilization to work.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you both, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman, for taking time to be with us. The book is "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us." And it's available, I'm sure, everywhere and online. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You bet, Ira.

FLATOW: Take care.

PALCA: Okay.

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