Monitor on Psychology - November 2011 - (Page 34)

Questionnaire Annoying science In a new book, NPR science correspondent — and psychologist by training — Joe Palca explores the science of what bugs us. By lEA WiNERMAN Monitor staff ou may know Joe Palca as one of the voices of science on National Public Radio. Over his nearly two decades at NPR, he’s covered topics as diverse as space shuttles, medical research and basic physics. But before he became a science journalist, Palca spent several years as a sleep researcher and earned a PhD in psychology at the University of California–Santa Cruz. Now, in his first book “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us,” Palca has returned to his behavioral science roots. He and co-author Flora Lichtman, multimedia editor at NPR’s “Science Friday,” tackle a universal but perhaps understudied topic: annoyance. Palca and Lichtman talked to psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers to find out what annoys us, why we get annoyed and what’s happening in our brains when our irritation rises. Along the way, they pulled together diverse strands of research into what just might become a new field of scientific inquiry. let’s start with a fun question. i’m sure that as you were writing this book, you heard from a million people about their annoyances. Do you have any favorites? I like the ones that are like, “Whaaa? Why does that annoy you?” One that 34 y just blew me away was when we were doing a talk show and someone called in and said it really annoyed her when people picked lint off her clothes. And I thought, “Picked lint off?” I couldn’t even remember anybody doing that to me. But it actually opened a whole interesting area of inquiry. Because my first question was, “Well, who does this? Does that happen to you a lot?” I asked her that, and she said, “Well, you know, it’s usually my family.” “Mmm, OK, so why?” “Well, they were always very fastidious about dressing and going out ironed and creased and combed. And I feel like I never quite measured up.” And I thought, isn’t that interesting? Because it really does prove one of the things we talk about in the book, which is that what annoys you is more revealing about you than about the thing that’s annoying you. Another one, which I didn’t even quite understand, was when somebody said, “It really bothers me when they don’t count change into my palm. You know, if I give somebody a $10, and get $3.75 back, they just hand the whole thing to me instead of going one, two, three.” And I thought, “What?” I never did get to the bottom of that one. But there’s just no way of predicting this. That’s why it was hard to come up with these universal laws about what makes something annoying. So is there a “universal theory of annoyingness?” This is where my academic training either helps or gets in the way, depending on how you want to think about it. I think if I had handed this book in as a graduate thesis, I wouldn’t have graduated. But this is not an academic treatise. This was sort of an interesting inquiry into an area that hadn’t really been looked at. I don’t know how you put the smell of a skunk, the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, someone clipping his nails and overhearing a cell phone conversation into one definition of what is annoying — but each one of those things is annoying in itself. So with that caveat I’ll say that one of the things that seems to be a factor in [annoying people] is that it has to be unpleasant. But I think the key part is that it’s not deadly. We define annoyances as being essentially trivial. They may be unpleasant, but they’re not harmful, in general. I suppose if a skunk sprayed you in the eyeball that would be bad, but mainly [it’s] just, “Ugh, I don’t like this very much.” The other thing is, it’s something unpredictable. If you can get away from it, it’s not annoying. We talk about cell phone conversations being annoying. But they’re not annoying if somebody’s just walking past you in the street. So it has to have this quality of “you’re trapped and can’t get away.” And then the third “u” is uncertain 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

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Monitor on Psychology - November 2011

Monitor on Psychology - November 2011
President’s Column
Guest Column
‘Grand Challenges’ offers blueprint for mental health research
Documentary seeks to reach parents of LGBT kids
Treating veterans will cost at least $5 billion by 2020
Selfless volunteering might lengthen your life
Combat and stress up among U.S. military in Afghanistan
South Africa to host international psychology conference
Study uncovers a reason behind sex differences in mental illness
Navy psychologist gives a voice to combat trauma
In Brief
Psychologist suicide
On Your Behalf
Journey back to Heart Mountain
Psychology is key to pain management, report finds
ACT goes international
Judicial Notebook
Random Sample
Time Capsule
Science Watch
Behavior change in 15-minute sessions?
Health-care reform 2.0
Perspective on Practice
Giving a heads up on concussion
Practice Profile
Searching for meaning
Inspiring young researchers
Aging, with grace
Public Interest
Thank you!
APA News
Division Spotlight
American Psychological Foundation
The man who gave Head Start a start

Monitor on Psychology - November 2011