How to put a long leash on your pet peeves

The science behind our annoyance could stop us from bugging others.

It’s nearly midnight on a Thursday in the faded art deco terminal in Hamilton, and a dozen people waiting for the bus are royally pissed off. The ones lucky enough to be wearing headphones turn up the volume, but the rest twitch, pace or stare into space while the kid sitting in their midst drones loudly into his cellphone. He’s on his way back to Toronto after an election campaign rally with one of the party leaders, and he obliviously recites talking points a good many decibels above a normal speaking voice. “I like my guy,” he announces in the quiet room. “Maybe he doesn’t come across like an Average Joe, but who do you want running the country?” He talks and talks, and a woman finally snaps, gathers her coat and bag, and storms out the doors to wait in the cold, swearing as she goes. The future politico doesn’t even notice.

“Annoyance is probably the most widely experienced and least studied of all human emotions,” write Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. “There are no data, no measurements of how many people are annoyed or how annoyed people are.” It’s a subject touched on by researchers in other fields, like anger, but one that’s inspired surprisingly few specialists. In Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (Wiley), the two science journalists survey the disparate research into the topic. It’s no self-help manual, but there’s plenty here to be gleaned about how we can overcome nuisances, and make ourselves less annoying to co-workers and other folks.

“Everyone is annoyed by something,” they write. Some of these annoyances are intrinsic, having to do with our personal sensitivities. You may be annoyed by the smell of cilantro, and I may be annoyed by the rattle of the pipes in my old apartment; there’s not much to extrapolate from that. But there are some annoyances so powerful, “they transcend race, gender, age and culture.” The overheard cellphone conversation—what one researcher dubs a “halfalogue”—is a prime example. Though cellphones are new, even Mark Twain complained about overheard snatches of conversation, and the authors point to three factors that make halfalogues such prime annoyances.

They’re unpredictable, for one—we can tune out random stimuli, or the 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.” The brain is wired, too, to want to predict speech, and so fragments of conversation are catnip to our synapses. But the third factor that makes a halfalogue so annoying is not “the certainty that it will end, but the uncertainty of when.” That uncertainty elicits in us a sense of urgency—related, really, to our sense of optimism.

One of the researchers interviewed points to a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex as the possible key to being annoyed. As part of the limbic system—and thus having more to do with emotion than with rational thought—it’s the bit of the brain responsible for switching us between the sort of autopilot mode in which we sail through parts of our days (our regular commute, for example) and a state of active attention (as when somebody cuts us off during that commute). When something annoys us, it may be that part of the brain that’s active, jarring our higher brain functions. Another researcher points to the hormone oxytocin, the release of which regulates our behaviour under stress, as another variable that could make some more irritable than others.

But you’re not going to start taking oxytocin supplements because the guy in the next cubicle won’t stop with that stupid leg-shaking thing he does—an example of what University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham calls a “social allergen,” the kind of annoyances we find in settings like the office (or a personal relationship).

Most of these fall into four basic categories: uncouth habits (things people do that detract “from your physical or sonic space,” like knuckle-cracking, or that leg-shaking thing); inconsiderate acts (checking your BlackBerry while someone’s talking to you, for one); intrusive behaviours (intentional interventions, like “the bar bore who insists on telling you what’s wrong with America when all you want to do is watch the ballgame”); and norm violations (things people do that don’t directly impact you—like cheating on their taxes, or keeping a messy desk—that tick you off regardless).

Short of throttling your antagonist—cathartic, yes, but an action with consequences—how best to overcome these annoyances? For suggestions, Palca and Lichtman turn to sports psychologists. One endorses a form of “inattentional blindness,” a fancy term for “focusing on something else.” Instead of trying not to concentrate on the nuisance, you make a positive choice to concentrate elsewhere. Another suggests “cognitive restructuring,” whereby you change the way you’re thinking about the situation. The example given is of New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, who was famously distracted to the point of disaster by a swarm of midges during a crucial game in Cleveland. “‘I would have said to him, ‘Remember, Joba, one of the hardest things to do in the world is to hit a baseball. These flies are clearly in the batter’s vision…he has no chance of hitting any of the pitches you can throw right now.’”

Of course, what if we’re the midges? We often don’t realize in the first place when we’re the annoying sort, and here there’s no easy answer. While a couple of researchers are trying to develop diagnostic tests to determine our level of annoyingness, it’s devilishly hard to determine whether we’re irking someone—and if so, why. The future prime minister in the Hamilton bus station likely had no idea that a dozen people were imagining their hands closing around his throat. Perhaps we can just be aware of the social allergens that irk others, and avoid them. And in an enclosed space with other people, keep your halfalogues to yourself.