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By Dr Rebecca Mathews MAPS, Dr Helen Lindner FAPS and Katherine Crea, APS National Office

Modern life has become busier than ever, with increasing work and social demands, a greater number of scheduled activities, and less time to recuperate. This can lead to people experiencing higher levels of tension and stress in response to everyday events and situations. The National Psychology Week research survey for 2008 investigated everyday events and situations that people find irritating. The main aims of the research were to: (1) identify those events and situations that are most likely to lead to feelings of irritation; (2) identify factors that contribute to increased irritation in response to annoying events; and (3) identify strategies used by individuals to manage stress associated with irritating events and situations.

Survey method

A web-based survey was developed to collect information on irritating events and situations and coping strategies used by members of the public to deal with these events. The content and language of the survey instrument were determined from information provided by members of the public in two focus groups. One focus group was conducted in a metropolitan location (Melbourne, VIC) and a second in a country town (Ballina, NSW). Focus group participants were adult male and female members of the public, from a variety of age and employment categories.

The survey was distributed via an email ‘snow-balling' technique to APS members, requesting them to forward the invitation to participate to their friends and family members. In addition, an advertisement was posted on the website of the Australian Psychological Society and a range of community websites (e.g., local councils), and an email invitation was distributed via community organisation membership databases (e.g., RSL).

A total of 5,058 participants took part in the online survey. Those who did not complete all questions in the survey, or reported a postcode outside of Australia, were removed from the dataset (n=582). This left a total of 4,476 respondents in the survey dataset.

Participant demographics

Of the 4,476 Australian residents who completed the survey, 77 per cent were female and 23 per cent were male. The age groups represented in the survey were 18 to 21 year olds (3%), 22 to 30 year olds (21%), 31 to 40 year olds (28%), 41 to 50 year olds (22%), 51 to 60 year olds (19%), 61 to 70 year olds (6%), and over 70 year olds (1%).

With regard to the highest level of educational achieved, 11 per cent had completed secondary school, three per cent had completed trade school, 17 per cent had completed a certificate or diploma, 28 per cent had completed an undergraduate degree, and 41 per cent had completed a postgraduate degree. This indicates that the survey represented a largely highly educated sample of the population.

There was a good representation from different localities across Australia, with 49 per cent of participants residing in major suburban areas and capital cities, four per cent residing in outer suburban and major regional cities, 39 per cent from smaller regional cities, five per cent from outer regional or rural centres, and one per cent from remote areas. A small number of participants did not provide details about their locality.

Identified irritating events and situations

The survey respondents were asked to indicate which events or situations - from a list of 32 identified in focus groups as irritating - were irritating to them. Figure 1 shows the percentage of endorsement of events and situations that the survey participants experienced as irritating.

The events or situations that were rated by the highest number of participants as causing irritation from the list of 32 options were telemarketing calls (70%), inconsiderate/bad drivers (68%) and unfriendly staff (64%). The events and situations endorsed by 50 per cent or more of the respondents focused on inconsiderate behaviour from others and the media (e.g., inconsiderate/bad drivers, violence, cigarette smoke, inconsiderate mobile phone use, biased reporting in the media, sensationalising the news and excessive advertising).

Figure 1. Percentage of participants who endorsed each event or situation as irritating

Factors contributing to increased irritation

Individuals reported that at times they manage these irritating events and situations less effectively and identified some factors from their own lives that contribute to this. Figure 2 shows the percentage of participants who identified, from a list of possible contributing factors, those that tend to lead to increased negative experience in response to the events and situations listed in Figure 1.

The major contributing factors to a negative experience in response to irritating events and situations were around the themes of poor social behaviour and time constraints. Specifically, inconsiderate people, a decline in social values, self-centred people and being pushed for time were identified as factors that contributed most to high levels of irritability. These views were also strongly expressed in open-ended comments.

In regard to time constraints, one participant commented: "Ever increasing expectations and working hours make even minor annoyances seem important. Every second becomes important and worth fighting for." In terms of self-centred people, another respondent commented: "The major difficulties of modern life seem to relate to a breakdown in moral values, proximity of living within cities, centralisation within urban environments, and the lack of consideration exhibited by many people for their fellows."

Fifty-two per cent of participants reported a perception that there had been an increase in the number of irritating events and situations they were experiencing, and 33 per cent of respondents believed this change had occurred over the past five years. In addition, 59 per cent of participants felt that people have become more accepting of irritable and even aggressive behaviour in response to irritating events and situations.

Participants were asked about the impact of their emotional and behavioural response to irritating events on those around them (family, friends and work colleagues). For events and situations identified as irritating, behavioural and emotional reactions were mild and were not reported to have a considerable effect on family, friends or colleagues.

Figure 2. Percentage of respondents who endorsed contributing factors to increased negative emotion in response to irritating events or situations

Coping strategies

Various coping strategies were endorsed by participants as a way of dealing with identified irritating events and situations. The most popular coping strategies were using humour (36%), taking a few deep breaths and staying calm (32%), talking themselves through the issue (28%), talking to someone else (27%), planning how to avoid getting into the same situation again (23%), and exercising (21%). Negative strategies such as using drugs or alcohol were endorsed by very few participants.

The coping strategies used specifically to deal with the three events and situations that were identified as irritating by a high percentage of participants were examined. These situations and events were inconsiderate/bad drivers, unfriendly staff and telemarketing calls. Table 1 shows the percentage of participant responses indicating that they have used a particular coping strategy for the three events or situations identified as irritating by the majority of participants.

When the top three identified irritating events and situations were considered, the most utilised coping strategies identified by participants consistently across the three situations were taking a few deep breaths, using humour, or talking about the issue (either to themselves or to someone else). Although individual's were asked whether they react aggressively, such as yelling, swearing, threatening or becoming physically agitated, the majority of respondents did not endorse such behaviour as a way of dealing with an irritating situation. Generally, coping strategies endorsed were positive, with no aggressive or retaliative behaviour reported.

Table 1. Coping strategies endorsed (%) for participants who identified inconsiderate/bad drivers, unfriendly staff, and telemarketing calls as one of their most irritating events or situations

Irritating event

Coping strategy


Inconsiderate/ bad drivers
(% endorsed)

Unfriendly staff (%)

Telemarketing calls (%)

Take a few deep breaths and try to calm down




Use humour




Talk to someone




Talk myself through the issue








Plan how to avoid getting into the same situation again




Listen to music




Try to distract myself




Use a relaxation strategy




Have a cup of tea or coffee




Have a cigarette




Think of something pleasant




Take prescription or over-the-counter medication




Drink alcohol




Go shopping




Report it to the authorities




Take illegal drugs






Participants in this survey reported experiencing a range of irritating events and situations in their everyday life. The three events and situations identified as most irritating by the highest percentage of respondents were inconsiderate/bad drivers, unfriendly staff and telemarketing calls. The mechanisms for coping with these events and situations indicated that largely positive approaches were used. The coping strategies used to manage irritating events and situations were consistent across those events and situations considered to be irritating by a large percentage of participants and across age groups. Using humour, talking oneself through the situation, talking to someone else or planning ways to avoid the irritating situation were the preferred coping strategies. In general, participants did not engage in aggressive or retaliative reactions to these irritating events and situations and coping strategies were mostly very adaptive.

The APS put together a set of tips for members of the public to assist them in dealing with everyday events and situations that they find irritating, which were publicised as a Fact Sheet during National Psychology Week. The full report on the NPW survey and the Fact Sheet are available from the NPW website (www.psychologyweek.com.au).