6 Things That Annoy You Every Day (Explained by Science)
A theoretical physicist named Geoffrey West was studying population growth of various cities when he noticed something weird. Basically, every time a city doubled in population, there was an inevitable 15 percent increase in ... well, everything. The rate of crime, pollution, disease, good stuff like productivity and creativity, and bafflingly specific stuff like the speed at which people walk along sidewalks. Double the citizens, everything went up by almost exactly 15 percent no matter where he looked.
It's weird to think of human behavior as predictable. It's not like criminals read the latest census information, do some quick calculations and put on their murder gloves to go out and fill their quota. But it turns out that a lot of the things that annoy us about daily existence are governed by scientific laws and systems we're not even aware of.
Public Cell Phone Conversations
You're sitting on the train, trying to concentrate on the notebook in which you're composing your latest rock opera, when the guy across from you pulls out his cell phone and starts a conversation: "I know ... Sure I did ... Well, did you try setting it on fire? ... Ha, tell him not on my watch ... No, I said did you try setting it on fire?" Unable to concentrate, you sit in silent rage until he hangs up and you're able to breathe again. And then he starts dialing again. What the fuck is that guy's problem?
Everything we know about morality tells us you would be justified in beating him to death with a tire iron.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
The real question is why are you so annoyed by him? Take a moment to look around our hypothetical train car. There's the guy behind you trying to teach his girlfriend to pronounce "Doritos" with correct Spanish phonetics. There's the conductor announcing the name of the next stop for the third goddamn time. Why is the guy on the mobile phone the one who's starring in grisly crime scenes in your mind?
Our problem with public cell phone conversations has nothing to do with how cool he thinks he is, or even his stupid voice. It's all in our heads.
Above: Not what we meant.
Science has proven that hearing half a conversation, as you're forced to do when close to a cell phone user, is inherently more distracting to the human brain. In one experiment, people were asked to try to concentrate on a task in total silence, and then while overhearing two people conversing with each other. They performed equally well both times. But when half a conversation was played, performances dropped dramatically. Another study showed that people on public transport recalled more details of a one-sided conversation than a two-sided one, even if they'd been trying to ignore both.
The human brain likes things to be predictable, and it can't really relax and "tune out" something that doesn't make sense. You might notice yourself trying to fill in the other half of the phone conversations you overhear. It's the same mechanism that makes it so hard to walk away after you've seen the first 15 minutes of an episode of CSI or Law & Order: The brain naturally hates leaving questions unanswered. Suddenly, you're trying to solve a puzzle instead of concentrating on how little you give a shit about the exact drunken position he passed out in last night.
Just how the fuck did that horse make her spend a year at college?
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it, unless you plan to start investing in extremely small EMP devices.
You're on the jet bridge waiting for the lucky bastards already on the plane to stow their belongings in the overhead compartment. Suddenly, a fellow member of Boarding Group C pushes you from behind. You turn around to smile awkwardly so that the rest of the interminable wait isn't rife with awkwardness, only to be shoved on the ticklish side of your torso. You're considering withholding that awkward smile after all when you realize the guy with his hands on your breasts isn't the real culprit. The people in the back are all crushing in toward the plane as though it's a rave, and the plane is a giant ass sheathed in corduroy. Don't they see that there's literally 20 feet of empty space behind them?
There's a reason we usually fly on the Cracked private jet. And that reason is mescaline/absinthe shooters. But not getting shoulder-fucked by idiots is a nice bonus.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
You're just the victim of something that seems to happen whenever a group of people waiting for something hasn't formed an orderly line. For some reason, the folks at the back just can't resist invading your personal space, as if an inch of forward movement will somehow make them reach their destination more quickly. We understand that people get impatient, but generally most of humanity manages to wait in line at the bank without banging up against the person in front of them like an angry giraffe. So why is it different in a thick crowd?
Anonymity breeds sociopathy. Otherwise known as Cracked's Greater Theory of 4Chan.
Believe it or not, this kind of thing is usually not caused by human malice or by a secret society of perverts who are really into rubbing against people's backs. Instead, it works like this: You're standing near the back of a crowd and there's a lot of free space around, so you move forward slightly, because hey, why not? Free space is cheap back here where there's lots of it.
Except that you have just started an Indiana Jones-style rolling boulder of suck. Those standing behind you assume that since more space is appearing ahead of them, the whole crowd is moving forward, so they follow suit. If something is blocking the people right at the front -- a turnstile, a slow barista, an escaped sewer alligator terrorizing the subway -- people are going to start involuntarily cramming into whoever's trapped at the front just to avoid being so uncomfortably close to the fat guy behind them. And because of the fuckton of people everywhere, there's no way for those at the back to know what they're doing.
Not that they'd avert their eyes from their iPhones to try.
It's this lack of visibility that's also responsible for the mega-version of crowd cramping: stampedes. When we hear about stampedes, we tend to think of greed, mass panic, angry sports fans or some sort of temporary group insanity. We call a stampede death a "trampling," as if crowds are like herds of wildebeest, willing to crush human bodies underfoot when a firecracker is set off near their hind quarters.
In reality, stampedes have been triggered by things as simple as reaching down to pick up a lost shoe.
Meanwhile, the oblivious people at the back are still pushing forward, and those caught in this tragic man-pile are physically unable to do anything but crush those in front of them. Which is too bad, because it takes the weight of only five people pushing like this to cause deadly asphyxiation. So if you ever find yourself in a situation like this, it doesn't matter how cheap the TV sets are at Best Buy today. Get the fuck out.
Always know the locations of your emergency exits. And always carry a flare gun for crowd dispersal.
It doesn't take much to get most of us enraged when we're driving a car. People cutting us off, people not using their blinkers, people using their blinkers too much, people driving annoyingly blue-colored cars. When someone cuts us off when we're on foot, we might feel slightly annoyed, but we don't usually have the same urge to yell, swear and honk a horn at them. Not unless there's some major problems in other parts in our life, or we're a clown.
Not all drivers are equally aggressive, though. Some of us just take a few deep, calming breaths when a guy drives all the way past the line of waiting cars in an exit lane, and then cuts in right at the front. Others actually get out of their cars and break his windshield with a crowbar. Why this extra rage?
"I HAVE IMPORTANT, QUESADILLA-RELATED BUSINESS TO ATTEND TO."
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
First, a question: What do you think is the best predictor of whether someone is prone to road rage and aggressive driving? Whether he's driving a beat-up pickup or a lavender Prius? The presence or absence of prison tattoos? The presence or absence of a crowbar holster on the back of the passenger seat? No. It's the number of bumper stickers on his car. Even one sticker or decal is enough to raise the likelihood of the driver having to be physically restrained by loved ones after somebody doesn't let him in to the lane in time.
Not pictured: The "coexist" bumper stickers on both cars.
How does this work? Well, consider the hypothetical person who gets into your personal space on the street. Unless he's a total dick, chances are he will make up for it in some way. If he doesn't actually say "sorry," he'll usually display some sort of unconscious, apologetic body language. Most of the time, this is all that's needed to defuse the bumping-into situation. Machines, on the other hand, are incapable of this kind of polite signal, which is probably why you're more likely to yell at your computer when it freezes up than you are to yell at your servant when he drops your caviar.
No best-selling author's day is complete without a big bowl of jeweled caviar.
When driving a car, we humans consider our vehicles a part of our territorial space. So when someone cuts us off, or behaves discourteously, we instinctively react as if someone had run into us on the street and then ignored us completely.
So what's with the rage-causing stickers? Scientists have theorized that the act of marking a car means that the driver has a greater sense of this territoriality -- in other words, he identifies the car more as an extension of himself. Which is why they feel the need to mark it with a sign of his personality. Researchers have found that it makes no difference whether a bumper sticker says "Visualize World Peace" or "Guns Don't Kill People, I Do." To sticker-users, any vehicle-based rudeness means you've basically done the road equivalent of cutting in front of them in line and then flipping them the bird two inches from their nose.
Add in an exhaust fart to the face if you really want to piss them off.
People Walking Really Slowly
It's the holidays, and you just heard the gate attendant make the final boarding call for your flight, departing from gate G-42. As you sprint onto the moving walkway at gate G-23, you find yourself stuck behind an unpassable flying V of slow-moving sweat pants. You use your rolling suitcase to beat your way past them only to find yourself stuck behind another V-shaped group, obliviously chatting away about the climate up their respective asses. You lift your suit case to beat your way to freedom a second time, but then you hear the shots ring out from the TSA agents behind you. Your last thought is, Worth it.
Oh sure, they get to bring guns to the airport. But if we do it, suddenly that's "terrorism"?
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
After studying crowds of people on busy streets, mathematicians found that as crowds get denser, people walking together tend to shift positions so they can continue to communicate over the increased noise and distraction. Rather than walking in a line as they do in noncrowded environments, groups shift into rough V shapes, with the group members in the middle falling back behind the rest.
This un-aerodynamic form slows down the whole crowd, because the people behind them have to leave more space to avoid bumping into them. Think of it like Tetris: Horizontal lines fit right on top of each other, while triangles would fill up the screen quickly. If you get enough of this type of group, the crowd will slow almost to a halt, and you will just totally lose your shit in the silence of your own headspace.
"You like walking really slowly and muttering? Me too! Holy shit, let's all slow down and talk about this right fucking now!"
And it gets worse: Trying to walk around these groups, or yelling at them to move faster, actually makes the problem worse. "You're contributing to chaos. Crowds are self-organized systems, so when you don't cooperate, the system breaks and you slow everyone down," explained one of the scientists, who has obviously never been caught behind a crowd of elderly shoppers as they pause to contemplate whether this store will have the kind of support stockings they are looking for.
This crowd-slowing effect gets worse the more groups there are in a crowd, so your best bet is to try to move to a city in which nobody has any friends.
The city of Brotherly Irritation.
Sometimes, there's actually a good reason why we're stuck in traffic. Most of us don't mind waiting for 10 minutes on our morning commute if we can see orphans being rescued from a wreck involving a truck with a "Deadly Reptiles and Liquid Sulfur Delivery Service" sign on the side.
"These Komodo dragons are pretty cool, but they could really use a few dabs of sulfur."
More often, though, traffic on crowded roads just stops, and then starts again, and then stops. For no apparent reason.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
These traffic stoppages have been familiar to scientists for years. They're called "shockwave jams," and they're a hell of a lot less cool than that name makes them sound.
It works like this: A road is carrying a high load of traffic, and a single driver taps on his brakes. Maybe because he's remembered there's a speed camera coming up, or he's a nervous driver, or he got distracted by a billboard for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie and started wondering whether it could live up to the promise of the original trilogy. The driver behind him hits his brakes to avoid crashing into the car in front. This "wave" of car-based human folly travels backward along the road at a rate of about 12 miles an hour until traffic stops altogether, often for miles. Researchers have observed shockwaves like this in situations involving just 22 cars circling a small track. Even though the drivers were instructed to maintain a constant speed, jams started appearing almost immediately.
So is there anything you can do about these things? Yes, actually. A single driver can "break" these jams by leaving a significant amount of open space in front of him in heavy traffic, resisting the temptation to accelerate and close the gap even when cars cut in ahead. This technique not only stops the driver from having to brake when he reaches the back end of a wave, it actually destroys the wave for anyone behind him. There's a video of a guy doing it here. So if you want to feel like the world's most sensible superhero, this might be the technique for you.
"Look, out on the road! It's a sedan! It's a hatchback! It's 'Doesn't Drive Like a Cockbite' Man!"
People Acting Like Dicks
Most of us are familiar with the bystander effect, an unfortunate phenomenon in which people in crowds ignore others in danger because they think that someone else in the vicinity will go to their rescue. But what about the generally dickish way people in cities act even when you're not being mugged? When you're in a small town, chances are that people will be friendly and happy to talk to you, and all you'll really have to worry about is being attacked by mutants while having sex in the forest.
In the city, however, everything from ordering food to passing people on the street will probably be accompanied by intense surliness. This is not because rural folk are inherently kinder, either: People from nonurban backgrounds tend to start acting the same way once they've been in the city for a while.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
It's because of "urban overload," the incredibly large amount of information that those in urban environments must process. In one experiment testing the theory, a man wearing a cast pretended to drop some boxes of books while hidden observers counted how many strangers would offer to help. What determined the number of people who stopped to help wasn't whether passersby were wearing business suits or Stetsons, but whether a noisy piece of machinery was audible in the background. More than five times as many people stopped to help in a quiet environment than in a noisy one.
The study didn't come right out and say that headphones turn us into soulless monsters, but it was pretty heavily implied.
According to science, it works like this: Modern city dwellers must wade through thousands of potential social interactions every day. In order to deal with this, they must be selective about what they focus on. This leads them to unconsciously ignore "unimportant" information, whether it's a flashing strip club advertisement or an injured kitten.
"Ahh, they'll work it out."
The theory was first proposed in 1970 by Stanley Milgram, who observed that city dwellers try to cope by using "filtering devices." He meant it metaphorically back then, but the fact that we started stuffing real filtering devices into our ears as soon as they were invented means that his theory is holding up pretty well.
Another thing that social scientists have noted is that although most impersonal city interaction seems rude, it's actually also a form of politeness. Most of the time, people passing on the street or standing together in an elevator are not really ignoring each other.
Especially not if the office cafeteria served boiled cabbage for lunch.
Instead, we'll acknowledge the other person by looking at him briefly without eye contact and then looking away. This is called "civil inattention," and it works by letting the other person know that you see him, but are respecting his right to privacy. If we urbanites really didn't care about the people around us, we'd do stuff like point and stare if someone was wearing a funny hat. This technique allows us to walk the line between total blanking and overfamiliar creepiness, a balance that is of desperate importance when the crowded subway is forcing our elbow into someone's crotch.
And find out why all these assholes are buying our new book. (Hint: Because it's a NYT Bestseller.)
And stop by Linkstorm to discover why people are boners on the Internet.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Do you possess expert skills in image creation and manipulation? Mediocre? Even rudimentary? Are you frightened by MS Paint and simply have a funny idea? You can create an infograpic and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!