We all have our pet peeves, and many of them relate to how others behave. Perhaps you can’t stand seeing a fellow commuter bite their nails, or maybe you’re seething with frustration every time you have to contend with an aggressive driver. Well, it turns out that there are truly fascinating scientific reasons behind annoying actions like these. Perhaps reading about the physiological and psychological underpinnings of these seven common habits will help to defuse some of your irritation.
Saying “like” every few words
Speakers themselves rarely notice their repetition of “like” but listeners may sometimes assume that superficiality or lack of intelligence is the cause. However, people who say often pepper their sentences with filler words such as “like” or “you know” reliably test as being more careful and thoughtful. For example, one study published in the prominent Journal of Language and Social Psychology looked at the use of filler words in 260 everyday conversations. The researchers found that the participants who frequently used “like” and other filler words did so in part because they were keen to accurately express themselves—the filler words functioned as pauses while they found just the right words. So, the next time you find yourself irked by a conversation partner who says “you know” every 10 seconds, consider that they might just make a compassionate and conscientious friend.
Nail biting and skin picking
It can be anxiety-inducing to watch people who always pick at their skin or bite their nails. However, these fidgety individuals who seem intent on destroying their own hands tend to be perfectionists, according to recent findings in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Participants in the study who reported picking at or chewing their nails tended to do so more often when they were bored (rather than in relaxing situations)—and they were bored more often than participants who didn’t share their habit. The researchers speculated that nail-biters and skin-pickers are perfectionists because perfectionists bore more quickly than the average individual. It could also be that the bitters and picker are actually showing signs of anxiety themselves.
Interestingly, scientists at Colorado State University recently discovered that aggressive driving is often part of an overall pattern of trying to make oneself more visible. Road rage is linked to a territorial attitude and a sense that the car is actually part of the person’s identity. In the minds of many aggressive drivers, there’s a difficulty seeing the difference between public and private property—they really do (subconsciously) believe they rule the road. Of course, the reasons for this need to dominate will vary from person to person. However, if you have a loved one who can’t calm down when driving, it’s worth pondering the origins of this mindset—for example, perhaps control is important to them because it was regularly taken away from them in early life.
Continuously clearing the throat
It’s distracting to sit near someone who seemingly can’t stop clearing their throat, and you might think it’s just a tic. However, continuous, deliberate coughing is often caused by acid reflux. If acid makes its way up into the throat, the tissue swells and mucus becomes stuck in the esophagus. Over-the-counter remedies can often help, but proton pump inhibitors may need to be prescribed in more significant cases. If your chronic cougher doesn’t have acid reflux, they could instead be struggling with the excessive mucus produced as part of chronic rhinitis. This condition is different from hay fever, as it can occur in response to everyday dirt and dust all year round, causing inflammation in the throat and nose and prompting a need to clear the throat. Antihistamines are typically the best treatment.
Incessantly talking about physical issues
Ever had a friend or relative who aired a new paranoid worry about an illness every time you met up? Although you might have started to dread the process of frequently soothing their anxiety about brain tumors, rare parasitic infections and every cancer in the book, it’s worth stopping to consider that hypochondriacs typically do really believe they’re ill. This is part of a mental health issue called illness anxiety disorder (IAD), which rears its head even in the absence of any noteworthy symptoms. The root causes of IAD are still unknown, but a preexisting diagnosis of depression or a history of childhood trauma is common. Some people with IAD respond well to alternate medication options or psychotherapy, but you can help at least a little just by realizing that they aren’t merely attention-seeking drama queens.
Finally, if you’re one of the people who updates their Twitter or Facebook every few days or only uses it to check in with friends and family, you might find yourself downright baffled by people who can’t go ten minutes without writing an update about their latest meal. So what’s behind this chronic oversharing? Scientists at Harvard conducted fMRI scans on over 200 people, assessing changes in brain activity as they reflected on questions about (i) their opinions, and (ii) the opinions of others. The results showed that when we talk about ourselves, some of the major reward centers of the brain light up (coinciding with the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which are linked to increases in pleasure). An estimated 20% more of social media conversation revolves around oneself than it does in regular discourse—so people who overshare on social media may be hooked on the enjoyable effects of the chemicals that are released when our reward systems activate.