Overheard someone’s cell phone conversation lately? Opened a roughly sticking metal drawer? You know what annoyance is like.
Unless the culture where you were raised shaped your emotions in such a way that you don’t feel or show annoyance.
ANNOYING: The Science of What Bugs Us, published in 2011 by John Wiley and Sons, dissects several of our not-so-favorite things. Interviewing experts in psychology, neuroscience, pharmacology, sociology, and more, authors Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman narrate stories of not just what annoys us, but why, and in some cases, what we can do about it. Palca is a science correspondent for National Public Radio and backup host for Talk of the Nation Science Friday. Lichtman is multimedia editor for Science Friday.
Of course, as their book jacket points out, inadvertently they have given readers a blueprint for annoying others. As their research shows, “One: find something that your victim finds unpleasant and distracting. Two: make it hard to predict when the unpleasantness and distraction will end. Three: make it impossible to ignore.”
Kids know these three instinctively, which makes comic strips like Peanuts fun to read.
But why nails on a blackboard are among the most annoying sounds and how reverse hedonism works (why chilies and roller coasters both pain and delight us) are along for the ride here, also.
The authors acknowledge that annoyance as a science is in its early stages, and they follow the research down dead ends as well as productive ones. Digging into annoyance as a survival mechanism, for instance, they find that nails on a blackboard can mimic the screeches of early primates as they warn their buddies. The idea is it may have lasted to this day because it was important for survival then. But researchers also have found that some primates now don’t choose to spend more time on a branch where white noise is played than on those where scraping sounds are the noise of choice. Conclusion: needs more study.
While exploring annoyance, Palca and Lichtman also give readers a guided tour of scientific experimentation, with generous input from their conversations with researchers. “Of course,” says Josh McDermott, a neuroscientist at New York University, “with a monkey, you can’t just ask them whether they like something….You have to come up with something else to measure that.” Linda Bartoshuk, a psychologist with the Center for Taste and Smell at the University of Florida, found people whom she calls “supertasters,” who are much more apt than other people to find foods bitter, for instance, to the extreme.
So it’s not all fun and games, but their findings, at base, are about what it means to be human. Unless you haven’t ever been annoyed by a traffic jam or come from a culture that didn’t make you that way, and the book explains these, too.
Or unless you are unlike the capuchin monkeys, who were happy with their cucumber treats until they thought others had been given a tastier one, grapes. Curiously but not annoyingly so, that experiment has a lot to do with economy and philanthropy, upper-level versions of primate fairness.
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