Q&A: The science of what bugs us

Annoyed woman

Daily life can be full of annoying distractions, from loud phone conversations, noisy soup eaters to waiting... and waiting... for a delayed flight or train. Joe Palca, a science correspondent for US National Public Radio, explains some of the things we find annoying and says it can be the unpredictable moments in life that frustrate us the most.

Why do fingernails on a blackboard make us cringe?

The sound of fingernails on blackboards has only received a modicum of scientific enquiry but it doesn't seem to be anything to do with frequency. It has to do with roughness, which is a quality of sound where the amplitude of a particular sound rapidly goes up and down. The amplitude varying in an unpredictable way is what makes the sound so annoying.

The question is, why would that bother us? One of the ideas is that a similar kind of roughness appears in a baby's (or adult's) scream and so it is possible we feel the same when we hear the sound of fingernails on a blackboard as to when we hear a person scream.

Why are overheard phone conversations so annoying?

A phone conversation is a quintessential modern annoyance. Our brains are not passive listening devices. We actively listen and expect a certain amount of information to come from the next thing we hear.

In any conversation, we always anticipate the next word. In a phone conversation we cannot do that as we only get half the conversation. The brain keeps listening and listening and then we fall off a "cognitive cliff", where we want to know what the next word is but there is no way of knowing.

Why can the love of our life also be the most annoying person we know?

For every positive social or emotional trait there is a negative quality. If we initially like someone because they are very nice, we ignore the social cost of being very nice which can mean sometimes people take advantage.

We can then get annoyed when he or she is always working late or taking care of friends. Or we pick somebody who is strong and stoic and then get angry that he or she never shares their emotional state.

The argument is we ignore the social cost of these behaviours when we are initially dating because we see the world through rose tinted glasses. Later on we realise there's a social cost that accompanies their behaviour and that's when they start becoming annoying.

Can being annoying be used to our advantage?

Athletes sometimes annoy their opponents as a trick to try and get under their skin and put them off their game. The famous example is when Zinedine Zidane head butted Marco Materazzi, who was trash-talking him [In the world cup final in 2006]. He wasn't trying to insult him but to annoy.

Sports psychologists say people do this all the time - they are trying to use annoyance to unhinge their opponents as a functional tool.

What part of the brain is involved in being annoyed?

In one study, participants were told to do a task, after which the experimenter complained they weren't doing it properly - to annoy them.

The part of the brain affected was the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of the brain is seen as a gatekeeper for allowing emotional things to enter into the cortex and be rationally acted upon.

There was a time when neurosurgeons performed a cingulotomy - where they took out that part of the brain, usually for pain relief. It was found that these people no longer became as annoyed as others.

Joe Palca is the co-author of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us with Flora Lichtman.

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