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The Science of Annoying: Insights for Youth Ministry

I’ve often thought that the basic trait of a youth worker is that they are simultaneous immune to annoyance by teenagers and annoying to other adults.  It is clearly seen in the stereotypical youth minister: a forever adolescent who plays as much as they pray.  So I found it appropriate to read Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us as it fits with my calling.


There is a whole genre of books that deal with the science of emotion.  They are typically interdisciplinary works which report findings from neuroscience, psychology, education, anthropology, humanities, biology, and the list could go on.  Now there are some books written by scientists or researchers which I would warn against reading, unless you like falling asleep.  My favorite are written by reporters of science such as Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman who are a part of the NPR team for the show Science Friday.

Cell Phones

Why does hearing a person talk on a cell phone in a public space annoy so many?  Palca and Lichtman think research and a Mark Twain anecdote point to the fact that we are wired to auto-complete.  We want to know what would make some people say the weird things they say on their cell phones.  For exanple, the teen boy who speaks only in noises and then hangs up (Um. Aha, Yeah, I’da, Um-hm, Bye) or the teen girl who just keeps repeating “ok.”  Our one-sided perspective can’t auto-complete them and so they may annoy us to no end.


The science of annoying noise was pretty predictable.  It drafts off the auto-complete wiring in our brains.  Specifically, the more dissonant or random a noise is (fly buzzing, ambulance siren changing pitches, etc.) the more it grabs our attention.  The real jewel of this part of the book is the Annoy-A-Tron.  You can get them here and see of the demo of it here.  If you, as a youth worker, don’t buy this and use it on your teens then I will be a little ashamed of you.

Hedonic Reversal

This was new for me.  Humans are some of the only creatures that will actually start out being mildly annoyed by something and end up liking it and even desiring it if exposed to it over a long enough period of time.  Researchers call this phenomenon hedonic reversal.  Chili pepper is one example they used in the book but I think lock-ins and over-nighters with a group of teens would have been a better example.

Social Allergens

A cool-hand psychologist, Michael Cunningham, researches social allergens, which are small things that don’t elicit much of a reaction at first but can lead to emotional explosions with repeated exposure.  Here are his types of social allergens:

  1. Uncouth habits – Behaviors that are not necessarily intended to be annoying but annoy none the less.  For example, noisy flatulence, nose picking, and knuckle cracking, etc.  I think he was describing youth group.
  2. Inconsiderate Acts- Inconsiderate acts that do affect a specific individual but aren’t done intentionally.  For example, a person that texts while you’re talking to them, or a person says they’ll do something but forgets.
  3. Intrusive Behavior – These are behaviors that are intentional and personally directed.  This can come in the form of  a person who insists on giving their opinion when it isn’t asked for.  I immediately thought of the running commentary on everything that is done in youth group.  I love how open some teens can beJ
  4. Norm Violations – These are behaviors that are intentional but not personally directed.  It happens when a person breaks a social norm that you hold.  I instantly thought of adults who get mad at teens for being too noisy during worship.

Some youth workers have issues coping with these social allergens with teens and it hinders them from ministering to and with them.  It is helpful to keep these in perspective to our ultimate goal which is to lead teens to enter into a redeemed relationship with God in Christ.  Let’s not let our social allergies get in the way of this ultimate goal.

The Annoyed Brain

Thomas Denson did an annoying experiment with some college sophomores in an fMRI machine.  What he found is that dorsal anterior cingulated cortex becomes active when a person is annoyed.  This part of the brain is what switches people from autopilot mode (how we normally operate) into active attention mode.  In other words, we can’t help but pay attention to annoying stuff because that’s how we are wired.  So have a little grace with yourself when you get annoyed.  You were made to be annoyed.

Beyond Annoyance

Here is my plug for youth formation that goes beyond telling teens how they should live and includes modeling and embodying faith in community.  Teens need to learn how to be annoyed and not sin.  They learn this by seeing the behavior modeled in community.  When you and others in your faith community act in Christian ways in the midst of annoyance, teens learn how they can do the same.  The best teaching moments come when a teen is faced with an annoyance and acts.  Here is where we can instruct and encourage Christian behavior.  This repeated cycle of modeling and embodying will form into them habits that are faithful to the way of God in Christ equipping them to be annoyed and be a faithful witness.