In a new book, NPR science correspondent — and psychologist by training — Joe Palca explores
the science of what bugs us.
BY LEA WINERMAN
You 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
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
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
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
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
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