5 Pet Peeves That Are Totally Justified, According to Science

Updated: Feb. 10, 2017

Here's the reason why annoying things are so annoying, and why your survival could depend on them.

Claire Benoist for Reader's Digest

Why am I so ANNOYED all the time?

There are three “u”s that make something annoying, says NPR science correspondent Joe Palca: For something to be categorically annoying, it must be unpleasant, unpredictable, and of uncertain duration. Think: A mosquito buzzing in your ear. A traffic jam with no explicable cause. A stranger entertaining the whole Starbucks line with his loud cell phone soliloquy. The optimists among us might write these off as simple “pet peeves,” unworthy of our emotional energy. But recent research into the science of annoyance argues otherwise: The things that annoy us could actually kill us, and getting peeved is a natural expression of survival. Here are five times when “pet peeves” are absolutely worth getting upset about, according to science.


Pet peeve: “I HATE the screech of nails on a chalkboard!”

The rapid, grating change in volume that accompanies chair-on-floor or nail-on-chalkboard friction is unpleasant, unpredictable, and uncertain—but there’s an even spookier reason why screeches get under our skin. “It turns out that fingernails on a blackboard have a similar acoustic signature [to human screams],” Palca tells the American Psychological Association. Our prickling reaction to this screechy, screamy frequency may well be part of a deeply-planted survival instinct: Screams = Danger. So, does that make annoyance a biological tool in our arsenal of survival instincts? Researchers have some bold thoughts on that…


Pet peeve: “I HATE when people chew with their mouths open!”

It’s hard to ignore the moist uproar of another person smacking their lips or chomping their teeth in public—and that’s precisely what makes open-mouth chewing so annoying. “Things that are annoying grab our unwilling attention,” Christopher Peterson, PhD, writes for Psychology Today. “They prevent us from paying attention to other things,” and that can pose a serious hindrance to survival. Consider: While your oblivious coworker is slurping the meat off an entire rotisserie chicken at his desk, you can’t focus on what really matters, like getting your work done, or minimizing YouTube when your boss sneaks up behind you. The chewer’s actions present a survival disadvantage to the listener—and that really ticks some of us off. As audiologist Marsha Johnson explains, people who suffer from misophonia (the pathological hatred of annoying noises) don’t get a say in this pet peeve: “When people hear these sounds, they react with intense emotion… It isn’t a higher cognitive function where you’re going, ‘I don’t like white chocolate lattes.’ This is like a yellow-jacket sting—you slap, jump, run, and scream.” (Related: These are the most annoying dining habits you could have.)


Pet peeve: “I HATE when people blather on their phones in public!”

If you’re not a full-fledged misophone, chances are you’ve still lost your cool in the face of a stranger’s grating public cell phone conversation. Why is this so universally annoying? Because our brains love closure. “It’s half of a conversation,” says Flora Lichtman, co-author of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. “Your brain goes into this mode where you start trying to predict what that person is going to say next. The thing that’s frustrating about a cellphone conversation is that it’s very hard to predict, which is one of the things that we found makes something annoying.” Hearing a halfalogue, as the annoyance-studies community now dubs these one-sided conversations, is objectively unpleasant (you can’t ignore it), unpredictable (“what are they bloody talking about?”) and of uncertain duration (“will they EVER shut up?”). So don’t fret: This pet peeve ticks all the boxes of a bona fide nuisance. It also tells you something very important about the person doing the talking…


Pet peeve: “I HATE when people nag, nag, nag and don’t offer a solution!”

We’ve touched on some annoying sounds, but what is it that makes a person annoying? Following the theory that annoyance is a biological response to something that poses a survival risk, an annoying person could be seen as anyone who takes more from a group’s social or survival prospects than they give to the group. “The things that annoy us are things that cue us that people are not going be a resource for the group or to you in your pursuit of acceptance and status,’’ said Robert Hogan, former psychology professor and president of the Hogan Assessment Systems personality consulting firm. The most annoying people “are those who are unpredictable and unreliable, who will criticize you or stab you in the back.” Naggers, schemers, braggarts, blatherers… all could fall under the umbrella of “annoying.” To avoid this label yourself, try one of these magical phrases that propel any social situation forward.


Pet peeve: “I HATE When someone cuts me off in traffic!”

Let’s get this out of the way: traffic in itself is extremely annoying. It is unpleasant, unpredictable, and of uncertain duration (especially if there are three or more lanes of traffic, in which case the odds are always against you picking the fastest lane.) But even worse than sitting in traffic is being cut off in traffic. A driver cutting you off is a declaration of war; you slam your brakes in defense, your temper flares, and you are left feeling stressed and sour. But this can be a good thing. “Any time you get an emotional reaction, it is nature’s way of telling you to pay additional attention to it,’’ psychologist Michael R. Cunningham says. “If we never felt irritation we would never avoid those people or situations that waste our time, cost us money, etc.’’ In the case of another driver cutting you off, your annoyed reaction is a signal to watch out for this crappy driver further down the road; their careless driving has already proven a detriment to your commute—stay close, and it could just as easily prove a detriment to your safety. So the next time you get cut off, hear a loud eater, or endure a gut-churning screech, embrace the annoyance. Identify the potential survival threat your body is trying to warn you about, and move on. (Related: Try these mental tricks to make a long commute go by faster.)

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest