The Perception of Annoying Things

June 29, 2011 Katharina Lochner
telephone and video interviewing

“Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us”

You are sitting on a train trying to work on an important paper you will have to finish very soon. But you can’t concentrate because the person next to you keeps on talking on her phone, chatting about things that you’ve never wanted to know. You are queuing in the supermarket, and the person behind you pushes his shopping cart into your heels, and there is nothing you can do to keep that person out of your patch. You are sitting in a restaurant and having a lovely lunch, but the child on the next table just won’t stop crying and is so loud that you can hardly hear what your partner is saying. Do these situations sound familiar to you?

The good news is: You are definitely not the only person on the planet who is annoyed by something. Now, there is even a book on things that annoy people, why people are annoyed by certain things, and what can be done against the annoyance. The authors of “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us”, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman, shed light onto these questions. In a very entertaining video, they introduce their work.

There are book reviews in the New York Times and in Express Night Out, and an interview with the authors in the Time Magazine (by the way, did you know that even magnets can get annoyed, or rather frustrated?).

Palca and Lichtman come to the conclusion that everyone is annoyed by something, and that there are some things that are more likely to be annoying than others, for example, fingernails scratching on a board. In their opinion, something is annoying when it is unpleasant, unexpected or unpredictable, and temporary. So we are optimistic that the unpleasant state will eventually end, but we don’t know when.

Knowing all this, what can we do to cope with the annoyance? Palca and Lichtman suggest restructuring the annoyance. That means, taking another point of view towards it. For example, thinking that you are lucky because the only worry you have is a child crying in a restaurant. You could also draw your attention to something else. From the selective attention test the post “Seeing the world as it isn’t” was on, we know that it is possible to shift your attention to just one thing, while completely ignoring something else. But this is difficult when it comes to noise. So there is also a more physical way of dealing with an annoyance: when a noise gets on your nerves, use earplugs. Or ask the person annoying you to stop doing the annoying thing. For example, ask the person talking on the cell phone to continue the conversation somewhere else. Finally, the authors propose to schedule your day so that you don’t have unexpected things coming up (for example, make sure that you are on time), and that you make sure your blood sugar is always kept up (by eating a little snack when you realise it’s dropping) because that makes you less prone to getting annoyed.

Don’t let others annoy you. But if it happens, remember that you are in good company.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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