Why are some things so annoying?

This is a fascinating article in Psychology Today about what makes certain things universally annoying.

In a nutshell, the things that annoy us most are things that are both repetitive (clicking a pen over and over, for example) and unpredictable (we don’t know when it will stop).

What are the things that annoy you most? For me, the top two would have to be tailgaters and fleas.
Oh, and narcs.

Things that Annoy Us
Post published by Christopher Peterson Ph.D. on Jul 03, 2011 in The Good Life

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What annoyances are more painful than those of which we cannot complain? – Marquis De Custine

I just finished reading an interesting book titled Annoying by science writers Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman (2011). The book is a free-ranging and intelligent discussion of what is known about the things that annoy us: what, who, when, why, and how.

The authors make the point that there is no single scientific field devoted to the topic of being annoyed. But plenty of scholars and researchers have weighed in on the subject, which means that such a field – were it to exist – would be multidisciplinary. Palca and Lichtman describe lots of pertinent studies by psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, anthropologists, audiologists, musicologists, entomologists (because the things that bug us include bugs, especially when they buzz), and others, and they convey lots of interesting facts from research. But my favorite part of the book was by far the many great examples they use of annoyances, from terrible smells to off-key melodies to repetitive spouses and coworkers.

“Annoyance” refers to whatever bugs us (stimulus) and also to the emotional state we experience when being bugged (response). The book starts with a discussion of just what kind of emotional state annoyance might be. It is akin to anger, but not identical. It is akin to disgust, but not identical. And it is akin to frustration, but not identical. The conclusion, according to the authors, is that annoyance is its own emotional thing and deserves examination in its own right. I agree.

Palca and Lichtman observe how difficult it is to find a universal formula for what is annoying, but they take a stab. Annoyances are unpleasant but not terribly so, at least not when experienced one at a time. Rather, it is when they are repetitive and at the same unpredictable (that is, when we do not know when they will cease) that they get under our skin.

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A one-time explosion on the street surprises and frightens us, but it is not annoying. Our neighbor’s music, played over and over, night after night, is highly annoying. Boom boom boom.

A coworker who constantly badgers us, belittles us, and bullies us is a bad person, but he is not an annoyance. He is an asshole. In contrast, a coworker who tells us the same joke hundreds of times is not a bad person, but he is an annoyance, and his laughter after each telling becomes like a fingernail on a blackboard, not life-threatening but certainly life-diminishing.

A cancer is a tragedy, and those who deal with cancer by being courageous earn our admiration. A blister is an annoyance, and those dealing courageously with blisters earn little or no regard from anyone. Indeed, if you complain about a blister, you risk becoming an annoyance yourself.

Context matters. Our own wind chimes strike us as beautiful, whereas those of our neighbors are annoying. Along these lines, the authors cite other people’s acronyms as annoying, at least when they are unfamiliar to us, whereas our own acronyms are efficient, entertaining, and even elegant*.

Culture matters, too. Apparently there are cultures – like Yap or Japan – where one simply does not express annoyance. I suspect, though, that annoyance as a private experience nevertheless occurs.

Epidemiologists have long known that major life events – like divorce or job loss – can lead to poor physical and psychological health (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). A more recent realization is that mundane hassles – like having to take care of a neighbor’s pet – also put people at risk for poor health (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981). Indeed, because hassles are usually more common than major life events, the damage they do in the aggregate may be greater. Annoyances are a version of hassles, I think, and they too may be deleterious. Maybe hassles take a toll precisely because they are annoying.

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Things that are annoying grab our unwilling attention, and that may be the reason annoyances are so … how to say it … annoying. They prevent us from paying attention to other things. Palca and Lichtman give the all-too-familiar example of an overheard cell-phone conversation to which we are subjected on a train or bus. We don’t want to eavesdrop, but we cannot help ourselves. And the fact that we only hear one side of it (what is called a halfalogue) makes it especially distracting and thus highly annoying, as it goes on and on and on. Maybe the human tendency to make sense of the world is coopted by hearing half a conversation more than it is by hearing both sides. Is this why political talk shows where “hosts” and “guests” talk over one another can be so annoying?

Why do we have the capacity to be annoyed? Maybe there is no real purpose for this capacity. It’s like an appendix or wisdom teeth. But to extrapolate from Darwin’s proposal that negative emotions like fear and anger are warning signals that lead to appropriate actions to avoid or undo pending danger, perhaps annoyances galvanize an appropriate reaction to whatever distracts us from what paying attention to what really matters, not a bad skill for people to have in their repertoire. Along these lines, Palca and Lichtman speculate that annoyance alerts us to a violation of our expectations about the way things are supposed to be. They use the example of off-key notes for people with perfect pitch.

Is there a positive emotion that corresponds to annoyance? It would be a mildly pleasant experience that results from a repetitive yet unpredictable stimulus. Psychologists have termed these uplifts (Kanner et al., 1981). The unprompted smiles or giggles of our children would qualify. Given that the origin or the word annoyance is from an Old French verb meaning to cause problems, perhaps anything that provides a solution to a minor problem would also qualify, like parking spaces that appear when we most need them.

Is being annoyed an individual difference? Relevant research has just begun, but the answer appears to be yes. There are some people who are annoyed by lots of things and others who are annoyed by very few. Indeed, some research even links the propensity to be annoyed to particular genes, those associated as well with some forms of bipolar disorder. In any event, I bet that the frequently annoyed are less satisfied with life than those who are unflappable. Palca and Lichtman speculate those who are frequently annoyed may themselves be frequently annoying.

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Said more positively, experiencing few annoyances contributes to the good life, for the self and others, and perhaps folks with few annoyances simply have higher thresholds. It is hard to imagine that the Dalai Lama gets annoyed very often, and maybe meditation that trains attention is a useful practice for changing one’s annoyance threshold.

If annoyance plays some useful role, though, we would not want to banish it completely. Otherwise, we would simply pay attention to anything and everything without any attempt to sort through them, which may be fine for a kitten or a puppy but not for a person.

Most of us are annoyed by some things some of the time and by other things all of the time. Whatever pushes our buttons may be as much a personal signature as the things we love or the things that we do well. Maybe personal ads should list our annoyances as well as our interests. If a shared annoyance can forge a common bond, perhaps annoyances have a silver lining. Perhaps.

Familiarity does not breed contempt, but it can breed annoyance. Maybe a sign of true love is not being annoyed by what another person does, no matter how unpleasant, repetitive, and unpredictable it might be. Rather than defining love as never having to say you’re sorry, maybe we should define love as never having to say you are annoyed.

Along these lines, several chapters of the book grapple with interpersonal annoyance, raising the intriguing point that the initially endearing traits and habits of a romantic partner may end up being highly annoying and even the source of breakups. So, we may fall in love with someone who is funny, or someone who is stolid, or someone who is attentive, only to fall out of love as time passes and the person is experienced as clownish, or unexpressive, or clinging. Nothing has changed except ourselves and the experiences that have accrued – which is to say everything has changed.

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One of the standard bits of positive psychology advice for couples experiencing rough times is for each to remember what was initially attractive about the other. But in some cases, a displeased partner may not need any reminding at all. To quote football coach Dennis Green’s famous rant, “They’re who we thought they were!” Better advice would be to reframe what has become annoying or to find something else that is attractive. For lasting love, this may be an ongoing process. No one ever said that love is easy.

* It has been suggested that the US Army invented acronyms. I doubt that is true, but members of the military seem to revel in them. I have done some work with the Army over the past few years, and while I have the utmost respect and admiration for those who wear the uniform of the country, my good feelings come to a screeching halt when Soldiers start tossing out acronyms, as some are wont to do. My all-time least favorite is POV, an Army acronym for personally owned vehicle. That means car, for goodness sakes. When I meet with members of the military, I sometimes request that the meeting be a DAZ-meaning de-acronymed zone. Just say the words, sir or ma’am, at least if you want me to pay attention to the content of what you say and not be incredibly annoyed by how you say it.

14 thoughts on “Why are some things so annoying?

  1. I hate bad table manners. I also hate, more than narcs, are the people who kiss narc butt. That’s why we can’t win with a narc or get even they can get an army after us. Turning the narc into the victim. The narc I can tolerate, but their followers are the worst bullies in my opinion.

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    • Bad table manners are very annoying. I especially hate it when people chew food with their mouth open or talk with their mouth full of food, that is so gross.
      As for your second point, I do agree with you that narc butt-kissers are extremely annoying, but I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of defending their behavior or showing pity for them sometimes. :/ I hope you don’t hold that against me. But I think you are referring here to their flying monkeys. Unfortunately I was recruited as one not too long ago, but I didn’t know the guy was a narc when that was happening. If I know someone is a narc I will never be their flying monkey.

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      • Its ok, I’m sure we have all been recruited as a flying monkey, and I didn’t know what narcs were at the time either. But sometimes in a room, full of strangers, or if no one knows anyone better than they do the next person, and the narc goes on attack, I feel like the whole group will come after me to protect the narc in their presence. Even when they know the narc is at fault.

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        • YES! This is so true. It’s as if the narc has everyone in the room under some kind of spell and they react as if the narcissist is the victim instead of the real victim and do anything to protect them. It makes me sick.
          I think it’s because they are afraid of the narcissist’s wrath if they don’t defend him or her.

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        • Thanks. I haven’t felt completely well since I had the two bacterial infections back in December, after accidentally inhaling a lungful of toxic black mold. That stuff can kill you. I felt almost back to my normal self, thanks to the miracle of antibiotics, when our sweet Lady dog died in early March and that seemed to set me back, both physically and emotionally. I’m going to go back to my doctor and hopefully she can figure out what’s going on. Being the anxiety-ridden big baby I tend to be, I’m kind of nervous. Okay, that was a lie, I’m a LOT nervous. I know we’ve all got to go sometime and I believe — I hope — it will be much better in the next life, but…. eeek.

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          • That does sound scary. Mold is no joke. I’m sure your doctor can give you the proper treatment and you will be fine.
            Yes, losses like you suffered with the death of your Lady can set you back. It takes time to heal from that. I can’t stand it when people say losing a pet is nothing and shouldn’t bother you. Pets can become like children and losing one can be almost as painful.
            Let me know what the doctor says. Try not to be nervous.

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            • Okay, thanks, I will let you know. I plan to see the dr. on Friday.

              About my freak mold inhaling accident, take it from me: if you ever open a drawer that hasn’t been opened in several weeks and you see a plastic bag inside, the kind they put your purchases in at a grocery store, and you touch the bag and it feels very soft and squishy…. Do Not Open The Bag and Look to See What’s Inside! Especially NOT while you are INHALING! It was a food item that must have somehow fallen off the countertop of our RV trailer and landed in unnoticed in an open bottom drawer that was then later closed up tight, probably the burrito my hubby had brought me from the convenience store several weeks earlier when I was working out in the trailer and later he asked me if I had eaten the burrito and I had no idea what he was talking about — that thing had turned SOLID BLACK with MOLD! When I saw what was in the bag, and I was inhaling, I knew immediately that I had just done a very bad thing. I searched online about the dangers of black mold and found some really bad stuff. I also learned that, since we live in a semi-arid region, the mold spores that are strong enough to grow here are especially toxic. 😦

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            • That’s interesting. I would think high humidity would be more mold-spore friendly than a dry climate. That blackened burrito sounds really gross. I think I would have puked.

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            • Yes, you are right, high humidity is much more mold-spore friendly. The article I read said the mold that grows in arid regions is more toxic to one’s health, because it has to be a particularly strong, tenacious variety of mold, in order for it to survive in arid regions. We had to gut and rebuild our bathroom last year because it got that same black mold in it.

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