Monitor on Psychology - November 2011 - (Page 36)
psychologists we talked to [had]. A lot of psychologists said, “It’s mild anger, it’s frustration.” So we were at a bit of a loss to convince any of these people, who’ve put their research into the anger category or put their research into the frustration category, to say, “Well, we think annoyance is something slightly different than that.” And we still do. I think there’s an argument that if you do your Venn diagram, there are certainly overlaps with a lot of these other emotional states. But I think there’s a spot that annoying sits in that is unique to annoyance. But again, this is the difference between an academic study, which we didn’t do, and a journalistic inquiry, which we did do. In the best of worlds, we’re hoping that somebody finds this interesting enough to carry forward. I know that Linda Bartoshuk, at the University of Florida, has expressed interest. She’s very big on studying hedonic behaviors, so she’s trying to come up with [different] scales for measuring things like taste. She’s trying to work on ways of making them comparable, so that, in other words, if I say my annoyingness right now is a six, and you say your annoyingness is a six, on a scale of one to 10, how do we know how your six and my six compare to one another? I think that’s an interesting psychological question. you talk in the book about how annoyances are not that important, but may be evolutionary remnants of something important. Can you talk about that? I think they’re definitely remnants of things that, when we were a different
organism or had different capabilities, were potentially life-threatening. Bad smells were indicative of low oxygen. Bad sounds, screams and things like that — it turns out that fingernails on a blackboard have a similar acoustic signature. I think in general these are a civilized version of the simple withdrawal reflex. The response to the stimulus is “get me out of here,” basically. But again because the stimulus isn’t that severe anymore, either because we’ve socialized it or we’ve made it physically less dangerous, all we’re left with is the sort of residual “this doesn’t feel right and I don’t want to be here.” tell us a little bit about your psychology background and your path to journalism. I got interested in psychology when I was a freshman in college because I was visiting Stanford University — a friend of mine was in a dorm there — and the dorm resident was a guy named Bill Dement. He is the father of modern sleep research. He had set up a sleep lab in the basement of the dorm, and the dorm students were allowed to run subjects down there. I stayed up this one night and watched as the paper went through the machine and the squiggly lines played out, and it just amazed me that you could see from these lines that didn’t mean anything to me at the time that somebody was dreaming. I thought, “This is a window into people’s brains, this is so interesting. Can we really look inside at how people’s brains work?” And that’s what got me started. I’ve always been interested in how the brain works. I became a little disillusioned about the
fact that the connection between the squiggles on the page and dreaming is still a little vague and a lot of the answers aren’t there. But the questions are still fascinating. So these questions about brain and behavior have always been in my mind. And so I went through undergraduate, and then graduate school and wound up working with this sleep researcher who I admired from my undergraduate days. I was going along being a sleep researcher in the psychology department at UC–Santa Cruz. And then I thought, “Can I do this for the rest of my life? Can I be a psychologist?” I liked teaching, but I wasn’t really crazy about the research part of it — I sort of lost interest in projects before they came to fruition. I saw an ad in Science magazine for this program to take scientists and put them into media sites, and I did it, I did a summer at a television station, and I was hooked. Really, I think journalism — the way I do it anyway — satisfies my teaching craving, because I’m trying to explain things to people. I think science journalists have a slightly different role than sports writers do because a sports writer is not going to explain to you what an RBI is, or an earned run average. You either know because you’re reading the sports page, or you don’t. But I can’t make those assumptions in science. I have to explain to people what a bond is between two chemicals. I have to tell them more. n To listen to more questions from the interview with Joe Palca, click here.
M o n i to r o n p s yc h o l o g y • n ov e M b e r 2 0 1 1
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