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Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us

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In doing research for the book Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman asked personality psychologist Robert Hogan of Hogan Assessment Systems Inc. to design a short test that would tell how annoying someone is. Do you dare to find out? Rate how strongly you agree with the following statements on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1= Not at all and 5= Strongly agree

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Traffic. Mosquitoes. People who snap their gum. People who crack their knuckles. There are so many things in the world that are just downright annoying.

But what makes them annoying? It's the question that NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca and Science Friday's Flora Lichtman set out to answer in their new book, Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us.

For instance, why is hearing someone else's phone call more irritating than just overhearing a normal conversation? In an interview with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Lichtman explains why this is so grating.

"It's half of a conversation," she says. "Your brain goes into this mode where you start trying to predict what that person is going to say next. The thing that's frustrating about a cellphone conversation is that it's very hard to predict, which is one of the things that we found makes something annoying."

A study by a graduate student at Cornell University experimented with this idea of predicting speech by taking half of a conversation and garbling the words. Even though the test subjects couldn't understand half of what was being said, the annoying effects went away. "It's not just about the sound intruding your space," Lichtman says. "It seems to be about the speech itself."

Most people have something that particularly annoys them. For Lichtman, it's people who clip their nails on the subway in New York. That combination of someone else's hygiene habits and the sound of the clippers sets her teeth on edge.

For Palca, the annoyance that tops his list is unexplained delays.

NPR's Joe Palca finds unexplained delays — Why is the plane not boarding? Why is traffic not moving? — most annoying. i i

hide captionNPR's Joe Palca finds unexplained delays — Why is the plane not boarding? Why is traffic not moving? — most annoying.

Kathy Hudson
NPR's Joe Palca finds unexplained delays — Why is the plane not boarding? Why is traffic not moving? — most annoying.

NPR's Joe Palca finds unexplained delays — Why is the plane not boarding? Why is traffic not moving? — most annoying.

Kathy Hudson
Science Friday's Flora Lichtman is most annoyed by not being able to control her annoyance. i i

hide captionScience Friday's Flora Lichtman is most annoyed by not being able to control her annoyance.

Adina Lopatin
Science Friday's Flora Lichtman is most annoyed by not being able to control her annoyance.

Science Friday's Flora Lichtman is most annoyed by not being able to control her annoyance.

Adina Lopatin

"You're in the airport and a flight is supposed to go at 10," he says. "At a quarter to 10, they haven't boarded the plane. And then at 10, they haven't boarded the plane. And at 10:15 they haven't boarded the plane, and nobody is telling you why."

There are, however, a few things out there that are universally annoying — like fingernails on a blackboard.

"It seems to be something intrinsic about that mix of frequencies," Lichtman says. "The change in volume rapidly — it's called 'rough' in acoustics — most people's ears don't like that stimulus."

While there are plenty of irritants in the world, there aren't a lot of ways to alleviate that sense of annoyance. Palca points out that they're part of human life, and they're something that everyone has to deal with from time to time.

But there are some techniques that people can use — for example, distracting yourself if you're stuck in a long line, or something Palca calls "cognitive restructuring."

"You can tell yourself that that mosquito is just a part of the life flow of the world and I shouldn't be mad," he says. "It's just trying to do what it was genetically programmed to do."

Basically, though, the bottom line is that you're stuck, it's annoying, and that's part of life.

Excerpt: 'Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us'

Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us
Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us
By Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman
Hardcover, 272 pages
Wiley
List Price: $25.95

Introduction: Cell Phones

It can happen to anyone, at any time, in any place — in public bathrooms, on trains, in schools, even in your own backyard. You're never safe. For Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, it happened at the gym. "There was a young woman on the treadmill next to mine who was talking on her cell phone, and I was doing my best to tune it out, but she kept saying the same sentence over and over and over again. It was something like, 'He's arriving tomorrow.' I think she must have said it like ten or twelve times."

This is a classic case of cell phone annoyance. Liberman couldn't ignore the broken record on the treadmill next to him, and that was annoying. Why? Maybe it was annoying because talking on a cell phone when you're in a public space is rude.

Why is it rude? Lauren Emberson, a psychology graduate student who studied this, has an answer. "I think the reason why is that we can't tune it out. We find it more rude than someone having a conversation around us because our attention is drawn in and that makes us irritated that we can't be doing the other things or thinking about the other things that we want to. That's why it seems intrusive."1

It's an interesting idea: what we find rude is what we cannot ignore. In terms of cell phone conversations, Liberman points out that some will be harder to ignore than others — louder conversations will be more annoying, and the content of certain conversations may be more attention grabbing.

If you think it's juicy content that keeps people tuned in to others' cell calls, however, think again. The most mundane cell phone conversation, as Liberman found out at the gym, can be the hardest to ignore. "It was maddening because I couldn't figure what could be going on that was causing her to repeat the same thing over and over again," Liberman says. "It wasn't in itself very interesting; what was attention-getting was the unexpected fact of repetition. What was the conversational setting that would lead to this?"

This perfectly embodies Emberson's theory of what makes a cell phone conversation — which she and her coauthors dub a "halfalogue" — annoying. The repetition of the girl on the treadmill was annoying because it was distracting. It was distracting because, try as we might — and we do try — we can't even imagine how that conversation would make any sense.

The neighborhoods nearest to the campus of the University of British Columbia at Vancouver are expensive — too expensive for students, says Emberson, who was a student there and didn't live near campus. She lived a forty-five-minute bus ride away, which translated to a lot of commuting, which translated to a lot of reading.

When Emberson was in college, cell phones were just starting to get popular. She didn't have one, and they annoyed her, especially on the bus. She wanted to read her essays on the philosophy of mind, but she found herself distracted by her bus-mates' conversations. "Being an academic, I couldn't stop at just being irritated," she recalls. "I started thinking, 'Why was I irritated?' I couldn't tune it out, and I used to think it was because I was nosy. But I actually didn't want to listen. I felt myself forced to, almost. For most people, that's not enough to go and do a study about it." It was for Emberson, though, who is now at Cornell University. She devised a study to test her hypothesis on why cell phone conversations are so irritating.

Everyone is annoyed by something. Many of us are annoyed by lots of things. Most of these annoyances have more to do with our personal sensitivities — our neuroses, our upbringings, our points of view — than any objective "annoying" quality. Other annoyances are so powerful, however, that they transcend race, gender, age, and culture. At the top of the list is that most convenient of modern conveniences, the cell phone — at least, when someone else is talking on it.

Researchers at the University of York have shown that cell phone chatter is particularly annoying compared to conversations in which listeners can hear both sides.3 You don't need to have a special sensitivity, it's not a matter of taste, it doesn't have to remind you of something, and it's not an intrinsic feature of the human voice. Cell phone conversations are different. Could there be something about this annoyance that taps into the essence of our humanness?

Emberson has a theory. "It actually happened to fit into my emerging worldview about how we respond to information around us," she says. Her view is that when we hear half a conversation, such as when someone is talking on a cell phone, "our brains are always predicting what's going to happen next, based on our current state of knowledge — this is how we learn about the world, but it also reflects how we are in the world. When something is unexpected, it draws our attention in, our brains tune into it because we're this information-seeking, prediction-loving cognitive system — this is the idea."

Although cell phones are fairly new, halfalogues aren't a new annoyance. More than a century ago, Mark Twain railed against them. Twain was a man, let it be said, who found no shortage of annoyances in life, and American literature is all the richer for it. In 1880 — just four years after Alexander Graham Bell first exhibited his telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia — Twain wrote an essay called "A Telephonic Conversation," in which he stated,

Consider that a conversation by telephone — when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation — is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. . . . You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can't make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.4

As Twain put it, you "can't make head or tail of the talk," and Emberson thinks this is the root of why cell phone conversations so effectively capture our attention — and subsequently annoy us. When you hear only half of a conversation, it's hard to predict when the person will start talking again and what that person is going to say when he does open his mouth.

Part of the recipe for what makes something annoying seems to be its level of unpredictability. Completely random stimuli, we can tune out. We also have an easier time ignoring something that is steady, stable, and routine. But things that have some pattern, like the rhythm of a conversation, but are not predictable — grab our attention, whether we want them to or not.

Speech, especially, reels us in. You might think that when you're having a conversation with someone your brain is focused on listening, on taking in what that person is saying and processing the information he's imparting. You probably think you're absorbing his words like a sponge and possibly preparing your response. In fact, your brain is focused on guessing what the person is going to say next. You may be able to finish your spouse's sentences, but your mind wants to finish everyone's sentences.

Humans are always trying to predict speech, says Liberman. It relates to an idea called "theory of mind," which suggests that people can't help themselves from trying to read into what other people are thinking. "It's also pretty much automatic," he wrote on his blog Language Log.5 "If you're not

autistic, you can't stop yourself from reading your companions' minds any more than you can stop yourself from noticing the color of their clothes." This applies to conversations, too, he says: if you're listening to half of a conversation, "then filling in all this theory of mind stuff does seem to be unavoidable."

Humans are pretty good at filling in the blanks. One experimental paradigm that tests our brains' ability to predict language has to do with verbal shadowing. "The task is to listen to someone speaking and repeat what they say as soon as possible after they say it," says Liberman. "There used to be people who would go on variety shows because they could do it almost as fast as the person was talking. They hardly seemed to be behind them at all. But everyone can do this to some extent with a lag of a few tenths of a second."

As the speech becomes more unpredictable — or what Liberman calls "word salad — just random words spoken in sequence — the shadowing lag is very long compared to semantically incoherent but syntactically well-formed, nonsense material." The shadowing rate gets better and better as the structure and the content of the speech become more coherent.

Theories about how our brains prefer predictability show up in music research, too. "What we know from a biological perspective is that the best surprise is no surprise," says musicologist David Huron. "Large parts of your brain are oriented toward predicting what's going to happen next. There are excellent biological adaptive reasons why brains should be so oriented toward what's going to happen. An accurate prediction is rewarded by the brain. It's one of the reasons why in music we have very predictive rhythms. The thing to say about music is that it's incredibly repetitive."

Emberson tested the idea that halfalogues distract us more than dialogues or monologues do by asking people to listen to half of a cell phone conversation while performing a task that required paying attention. To make the cell phone conversations as realistic as possible, Emberson and her colleagues gathered Cornell undergrad roommates, brought them to the lab, and recorded them chatting to one another on their phones. Then the researchers asked them to sum up the conversations in monologues. This provided the researchers with halfalogues, dialogues, and monologues to play to listeners.

Listeners were asked to perform two tasks: The first was to keep a mouse cursor on a dot that was moving around a computer screen — which requires constant monitoring. The other was to hold four letters in memory and hit a button any time one of the letters popped up on the screen and refrain from hitting that button when another letter popped up. These tasks required monitoring and decision making. "Both demand a great deal of attention, but in very different ways," says Emberson. "We wanted to know if there was an attentional effect for the different types of speech."

The distraction of the conversations caused an effect, the researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science.6 During the mouse tracker task, people started to make more errors in the moments after the halfalogue recommenced. "When the person starts talking, your attention is really drawn in," says Emberson. "It's really automatic." The errors occurred in the 400 milliseconds after the audible speech restarted. It almost seemed reflexive.

Would any blast of random noise derail us? To make sure the effect was specifically caused by understandable speech, Emberson filtered the halfalogue so that it was garbled. She says it sounded like someone talking underwater. You could tell it was speech, but you couldn't make out the content. In that case, the distracting effects went away. When the halfalogue speech was incomprehensible, people didn't screw up the task.

When people performed the letter-matching task, Emberson found that people did worse when they were hearing a halfalogue compared with a dialogue or a monologue, which may suggest that we're more distracted by halfalogues generally. Emberson interprets the findings to mean that "there's a cost when you can't predict the succession of speech."

Liberman generally agrees with the theory that halfalogues are more distracting than dialogues or monologues: "It's extremely well-established, something that Emberson and company have assumed; when you're getting lower-quality information coming in, you're having to work harder to understand and reconstruct it." Liberman is more cautious about whether the increased cognitive load from unpredictable content is solely responsible for the decrease in performance on the attention tasks.

That brings us to our second ingredient in the recipe for what's annoying. Whatever it is — a buzzing mosquito, a pestering child, a dripping faucet, or half of a cell phone conversation — it has to be unpleasant. Not horrible, not deadly, just mildly discomfiting. Whether halfalogues are distracting because they're rude or rude because they're distracting, it's rare to listen to someone else's cell phone conversation and enjoy it. Some things are inherently unpleasant — the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard probably falls in this category — and others are more unique to the individual. Some people find being stuck in traffic unpleasant; others don't seem to mind a bit.

Overheard cell phone conversations point to a third and final ingredient in the perfect recipe for annoyance: the certainty that it will end, but the uncertainty of when. To be annoyed requires some impatience on your part. The conversation could be finished in a few more seconds, or maybe it will stretch on for another hour — it's the knowledge that the unpleasantness will come to an end soon that gives a particular situation an edge, a sense of urgency. That is, your annoyance is related to your sense of optimism. Your hope that it will be over amplifies every additional second that you have to put up with it.

Annoyance is probably the most widely experienced and least studied of all human emotions. How do we know that? We don't really. There is no Department of Annoying Studies or annoyingologists. There are no data, no measurements of how many people are annoyed or how annoyed people are, no investigations into what makes people annoyed, and no systematic looks at how people cope with annoyance. In fact, if you talk to psychologists, practitioners of a scientific discipline that one would think would have grappled with annoyance, you get the feeling that there might not be such a thing as annoyance at all.

So we set out to try to understand this feeling by mining the science in every field. There's no dearth of relevant research. A vast literature exists on anger, aversion, acoustics, social anthropology, and chemical irritants, but few scientists have thought about these things in terms of how they help explain annoyance. That's what this book sets out to do. Buzzing flies, car alarms, skunk odors, bad habits, terrible music, idiotic employers, recalcitrant spouses, and more. Tell people you're writing a book on the annoyingness of modern life, and you'll soon realize what a tetchy species we humans are.

Cell phones aside, the trouble with cataloging annoyances is that there seem to be few universals in what we find unpleasant. You may like the smell of aftershave, whereas it annoys your spouse. Pleasures can become pet peeves. You may find your spouse's way of using a knife cute when you first get together and god-awfully annoying after twenty years of marriage. The experience of annoyance is so subjective, so context dependent, that it's hard to nail down. This may be why researchers don't tend to think of annoyance as a separate emotion. "From my perspective, annoyance is mild anger," says James Gross, a psychologist at Stanford University. "And there's a huge literature on anger." Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, warns, "You have to be careful to distinguish annoyance from aversion." "It's hard to distinguish annoyance from frustration," says University of Florida psychologist Clive Wynne.

Emotions are sometimes plotted on a chart with positive/negative on one axis and arousal/calm on the other axis. "Annoyance would be arousal-negative. But it's a subtle one, isn't it?" asks Dr. Randolph Nesse, a psychiatrist and the director of the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program at the University of Michigan. "It's not quite rage. It's not quite anger. It doesn't fit real nicely on those valences." Annoyance seems to be its own thing. It's possible that defining annoyance is as difficult as Justice Potter Stewart found defining pornography to be: "I know it when I see it." Knowing it when you see it, however, isn't always good enough. In some lines of work, you need to be an expert in being annoying just to get through the day.

Excerpted from Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. Copyright 2011. Excerpted by permission of Wiley. All rights reserved.

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