Book Review: Annoying – The Science of What Bugs Us

Does Annoying provide a deep understanding into the psychology of annoyance or does it simply read like the experience of unravelling a ball of Christmas lights?

As most of my close personal friends can attest, I’m something of an expert on the subject of annoying. So it was with some gusto that I picked up the book Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the authors have backgrounds in science promotion, Joe Palca is a correspondent for National Public Radio and he specializes in science and is the occasional host of the Science Friday show.

Flora Lichtman is the multimedia editor for Science Friday.

I could tell when reading the book that the authors have some experience in taking occasionally difficult to understand science and turning it into pithy and entertaining writing. Although, as I’ll go into later, that isn’t always a good thing.

The book isn’t long, under 250 pages, which makes for a quick read, probably a good thing, would anyone want to read an opus on the subject of annoying? The book is divided into fourteen chapters that focus on sometimes specific annoyances like cell phones, fingernails on a chalkboard, and skunks. In addition, broad topics like breaking rules, why some things (spicy food for instance) annoy some people but not others.

One of the overarching themes that comes up often is the notion of how to quantify annoyance. Indeed, as the authors point out, there is no department of annoying in universities and psychologists generally disagree on what sort of emotion being annoyed is. This absence of research makes it difficult to nail down exactly why or how things go about annoying us. And not surprisingly, this road block soon proves rather annoying itself, especially when the authors appear stumped in reaching any concrete conclusions about the subject.

The difficulty is highlighted when it becomes clear that there are few objective definitions that professionals can even agree on. Consider this quote from the book:

“Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux…sees emotions as what happens initially in the brain and feelings as how our minds and bodies react to that initial brain change.” page 229.

Indeed, LeDoux believes being annoyed isn’t an emotion but a feeling. Philosopher Ronald de Sousa disagrees:

“When asked to consider it [annoyance], his first instinct is that annoyance is what philosophers call a ‘low-level emotion.’” page 230.

I actually enjoyed the debate in trying to nail down just what annoying was, however; unfortunately for me, the bulk of the book was dedicated to cataloguing various irritants (usually in a pithy manner) with a bit of a flare for round-about-ness. Meaning, a chapter would begin on a topic, morph into something completely different and then suddenly return to its original subject. Not surprisingly, I found this annoying.

There are several times when I was wondering where these diversions were actually going, in a few cases, they contained some useful factoids. There is an extended explanation on why police and fire and ambulance sirens are so annoying; they have to be. They need to get the attention of motorists and pedestrians in a hurry and let them know they are coming. Care also has to be taken that the sirens don’t become too commonplace, otherwise people might get used to them and not notice that a fire truck is barrelling down the road as you’re about to cross the street. This is why new annoying sirens are being invented, including such devices like the Rumbler.

“[the rumbler] doesn’t operate like traditional sirens. ‘It’s an auxiliary device, to be used in conjunction with the standard siren products,’ says Paul Gergets, the director of engineering for mobile systems at Federal Signal, the company that makes the Rumbler … From the grill of the vehicle, it shoots out a low-frequency sound that is meant to be felt more than heard.” page 25-26.

As I said, in some cases, these divergences aren’t particularly interesting and while the authors attempt to inject some of their pithiness, ultimately it had me skimming to the more interesting parts.

The first part of book details many different annoyances like the cell phone, sirens, and the classic fingernails on a chalkboard. Occasionally the annoyances will get a more in depth analysis, asking questions why exactly would humans be annoyed by the sound of finger nails on a chalk board? Sometimes the authors examine various theories like evolutionary psychology, and as most readers know, such arguments are difficult to falsify or prove. Yet the material is thought provoking and I found myself rather intrigued by these parts.

The content of book starts to shift a bit after cataloguing a lot of annoyances. The authors focus a bit more on psychology and trying to understand the neurology of annoying. I found this to be the book’s best feature. Unfortunately it’s a bit in the minority compared to the rest of the content. Nevertheless, there is some really interesting material, like how couples will enter into relationships based on character traits they see in their partners that they adore, only to find those exact same character traits deeply annoying a decade later.

I’m not entirely sure who this book is meant for. On the one hand, it seems directed at casually scientifically interested people. Perhaps someone who has some background in science or in general, listens to a lot of PBS science documentaries or watches a lot of the Discovery Channel. But that doesn’t really sync up with the latter half of the book which gets a bit more in-depth into psychology and neurology.

However, it’s not deep enough to keep a more hardcore science reader satisfied in my opinion. My guess is the average person picking this book off the shelf wouldn’t be too interested after reading the first half of the book. A more scientifically informed person, perhaps with an interest in psychology would get the most out of it.


One Response to “Book Review: Annoying – The Science of What Bugs Us”

  1. Michael5MacKay says:

    Thanks for the helpful review Ethan. As someone who is easily annoyed, I was interested in this book, but your review suggests that it won’t satisfy my curiosity. I’ll save my time and money, both of which are limited.


  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.