Study Looks at Question: Who has More Pet Peeves?

Who has the most pet peeves? Men, or women?

Robin Kowalski, Western Carolina University professor of psychology, sought to find the answer to that question by conducting a study involving nearly 170 WCU undergraduate students. The students were asked to list as many pet peeves as they could think of that they had with a current or former relationship partner.

When the students were finished, their lists ranged from the comedic — “squirting toothpaste in mouth,” “always picking channels,” “spasmatic clapping,” “mayo with fries” — to the serious — “lack of trust,” “irrational guilt trips,” “prejudiced statements,” “rudeness.”

When the individual participants’ “propensity to complain” was factored into the mix, and the numbers added up, “Women consistently expressed more pet peeves than men,” Kowalski said.

“Although this could reflect a greater willingness on the part of women to voice their dissatisfaction or a greater tendency for men to engage in annoying behaviors, we don’t believe either of these to be the case,” Kowalski said.

Instead, the difference is probably related to women’s “heightened sensitivity to other people’s behaviors, relative to men. On the positive side, this is a quality that allows some women to be very attuned to subtle nuances in others’ behavior,” Kowalski said.

On the negative side, that same quality also can cause some women to be more sensitive to the bothersome aspects of other people’s behavior,” she said.

Kowalski delivered the results of her pet peeve study at the August 2000 meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., and her research has since gained mention in Health and Allure magazines. Psychological research has tended to overlook the subject of pet peeves, focusing instead on a broader category of related behaviors called “social allergens,” Kowalski said. Her study is the first of its kind to focus on pet peeves.

After the students listed their pet peeves, two independent raters classified each one as belonging to one of 13 categories: health pet peeves, social pet peeves, personality pet peeves, hygiene, manners, disrespect, unconscious annoyances, communication, people’s idiosyncrasies, idiocy, relational pet peeves, pet peeves with family, and inappropriate public events.

In all 13 categories, women expressed almost twice as many pet peeves as men, and in some cases, such as pet peeves dealing with disrespect or unconscious annoyances, four times as many, Kowalski said.

The good news for women, Kowalski said, is that even though they may be more sensitive to the annoying behaviors of men, the men, apparently less sensitive to those behaviors, may not notice as many of the women’s imperfections.

A member of the WCU faculty since 1990, Kowalski earned her doctorate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Furman University and a master’s degree from Wake Forest University.

Kowalski has conducted extensive research into complaining and other aversive interpersonal behaviors. In 1999, she was presented the Taft B. Botner Award for Superior Teaching, the top teaching award given to faculty by WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions.