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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

If you've ever wondered why the whine of a mosquito...

(Soundbite of a mosquito)

MONTAGNE: ...the sound of a car alarm...

(Soundbite of an alarm)

MONTAGNE: ...someone chewing gum...

((Soundbite of chewing)

MONTAGNE: ...why these things are so irritating, there's a new book out there for you. It's called "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us," and it's by NPR correspondent Joe Palca and SCIENCE FRIDAY's Flora Lichtman.

Are there universal qualities to things that are annoying? One would think fingernails on a blackboard.

(Soundbite of screeching)

FLORA LICHTMAN: It actually seems to be something intrinsic about that mix of frequencies that makes fingernails on the chalkboard annoying to our ears. The change in volume rapidly, it's called rough in acoustics, most people's ears don't like that stimulus. But it's sort of rare, most annoyances seem pretty personal.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about you, Joe Palca and, you, Flora Lichtman? What tops your list of the most annoying thing? Joe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE PALCA: Well, I was hoping Flora would go first. Well, I've been thinking about this and I think for me it really is unexplained delays.

(Soundbite of a plane take off)

PALCA: You know, when you're sitting in the airport and a flight is supposed to go at 10 o'clock. And at quarter to 10, they haven't boarded the plane. And at 10, they haven't boarded the plane. And at 10:15 they haven't boarded the plane, and nobody is telling you why. If they would just say we have a mechanic on the plane and we expect it to be fixed in a half an hour, my anxiety goes way down because I now know how much time I had to wait for.

But if they don't say that all, I'm just like, what is going on. So that's one of the things that annoys me.

LICHTMAN: One of my top annoyances would be people clipping their nails on the train.

(Soundbite of clipping)

MONTAGNE: And people do that?

LICHTMAN: Well, exactly. And people do that, it's just impossible to believe. But they do. And I've been thinking really hard about why that's annoying, and I think it's partly the body association - hygiene. I think it's the sound and then the unpredictability, what we've been talking about, this optimism. You only have 10 fingernails, how could you still be clipping?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And something that I find very annoying, the sound of somebody talking on a cell phone in a conversation that I'm not part of.

(Soundbite of a ringing phone)

Unidentified Man: Hi, Bob. You're kidding. When did that happen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: It's funny. That's really funny.

LICHTMAN: Part of it seems to be that your brain goes into this mode where you start trying to predict what that person is going to say next. And it turns out that we do this all the time. Every time we're listing, you know, you think you're absorbing what the other person has to say. But it turns out that you're just trying to predict their speech, actually. And there are scientific studies about verbal shadowing, where if you try to listen to someone and say what they're saying as quickly as you can after, people can do this very fast with almost no lag.

And the thing that's frustrating about a cell phone conversation is that it's very hard to predict; which was one of the things that we found makes something annoying, usually.

MONTAGNE: And so, in other words, it's not what I would've thought. I would've thought it's annoying because you can't hear what the other person is saying, so you can't follow the conversation. But you're saying a huge element of it is that you somehow can't predict what the person you're hearing is going to say next.

LICHTMAN: Right. And a study by a graduate student at Cornell, Lauren Emberson, looked at this very question. And they took half of the conversation and just garbled the words so that they were a comprehensible. And then the annoying effects kind of go away.

(Soundbite of high-pitched jargon)

Unidentified Man: Say that again.

(Soundbite of high-pitched jargon)

Unidentified Man: No, I said say that again.

(Soundbite of high-pitched jargon)

Unidentified Man: Can you hear me now?

(Soundbite of high-pitched jargon)

LICHTMAN: It's not just about the sound intruding your space. It seems to be about the speech itself.

MONTAGNE: Well, aside from luxuriating in other people's annoying things...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: ...which is always fun to hear, is there anything that you discovered that could alleviate annoyance?

PALCA: No.

LICHTMAN: No.

PALCA: Unfortunately, we think annoyances are intrinsic to modern human life and you're just going to have to deal with it and expect to be annoyed some of the time.

We do talk about some of the techniques you can use, which are cognitive restructuring, where you can tell yourself: that mosquito is just a part of the life flow of the world and I shouldn't be mad. It's just trying to do what it was genetically programmed to do, and I can understand that. Well, you know, that might help.

Or if you're stuck in a long line, you can try to distract yourself by paying close attention to something else. So maybe if you concentrate really hard on your iPhone or something, you won't notice that you're in a long line that's not moving. But that doesn't work very well.

So basically the bottom-line is you're stuck, it's annoying and that's part of life.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca and SCIENCE FRIDAY's Flora Lichtman, they're out with a new book called "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us."

Thanks, both of you for coming in.

PALCA: You bet.

LICHTMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And you can take a quiz to find out if you are annoying. All you have to do is go to our Web site, NPR.org.

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