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Whining is the worst sound in the world, study confirms

If you've ever thought that listening to your child whine was worse than having a buzz saw cut wood inside your house, it turns out you were right.

A new study has found that the power of whining to distract people while doing simple math was even greater than other noises that people typically find annoying. It didn’t matter whether someone was a parent or not.

Still, this could explain why packing a lunch while your children caterwaul over whose magic marker can touch a particular piece of paper makes your head want to explode.

 “You’re basically doing less work and doing it worse when you’re listening to the whines,” said study co-author Rosemarie Sokol Chang, a professor of psychology at SUNY New Paltz. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, everybody’s equally distracted.”

The researchers asked people to do subtraction problems while listening to an infant crying, regular speech, silence, whining, a high-pitched table saw and “motherese” -- exaggerated baby talk that adults often find irritating.

To ensure that people weren’t distracted by the words themselves, they used foreign language for the speech samples in the study, which was published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology.

In raw numbers, people made more mistakes per math problems completed when listening to the whines than any of the other speech patterns or noises (though the only statistically significant differences were between whining, the table saw and motherese).

And people completed fewer subtraction problems when listening to the whining, crying and baby talk than when it was completely quiet.

This comes as no surprise to Eileen Wolter, who is raising a 6-year-old and nearly 3-year-old in Summit, N.J.

“My older son has this whole 'no fair, no fair' mantra that drives me insane, and the younger one, the minute you say ‘no’ to him over anything, he just gets crestfallen and then there are tears. There is a lot of whining,” she said.

Lately, she’s made a concerted effort to stop being so bothered by it, to simply lay out the rules and remain above the fray.

But, as a mom, she has an almost physical reaction to the noise, even if it’s just a minor argument over sharing a toy or who gets read a bedtime book first.

“It’s just really truly amazing that that’s their first instinct. It’s the first place they go. And there’s no differentiation in the scope of what’s upsetting them,” Wolter said. “My stress can’t tell the difference -- it’s just the sound. I can’t tell whether this is a real emergency or a real problem.  I just know that my kid is upset so I need to react.”

On some level, that seems to be the evolutionary point of the whining, Chang said. Most people would tell you ignore it, and the child will eventually stop.

While she hasn’t yet tested this theory, except with her own 2-year-old, she suspects that trying to figure out what the underlying issue is may be equally -- if not more -- effective.

“It’s telling you to tune in,” she said. “Nobody wants to sit around and listen to a fire engine siren either, but if you hear the siren go off, it gets your attention. It has to be annoying like that, and it’s the same with the whine.”