Waiting is Hell

Americans spend around 37 billion hours in line each year. When standing in dreadful lines it’s best to play games: One could count the number of green things in the room, try to calculate square roots in my head, create stories for the line-sitters around me, think of pretty things—do anything and everything to pretend she is not standing in line. A recent article by Alex Stone in the New York Times explains why lines are so taxing to humans and what organizations do to ease line-induced pain.

It’s a common understanding that “time flies by when having fun.” But, the reality is closer to “time flies by when doing anything.” Occupied time always feels shorter than unoccupied time. In a Houston, Texas airport clients were complaining about the wait time to get their baggage from the claim carousels. On average it took eight minutes to complete the process—one minute to walk from the gate to the claim area, and seven minutes spent waiting. Because 88 per cent of the trip was spent waiting idly, people turned frustrated with their experience and complained. The solution: move the gates farther away from the claim area and sent passengers to the most distant baggage carousel. Passengers had to walk six times longer, the total trip took no less time, but they were significantly happier.

“Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says MIT researcher Richard Larson.1 This explains why people didn’t realize it took them the same amount of time to pick up their bags but were more content with a greater amount of occupied time. Stone cites the placement of mirrors near banks of elevators as a reflection of this phenomena. Mirrors allows for people waiting for a lift to either stare at themselves or others around them, a highly entertaining event. The placement of impulse-buy items near checkout counters is also evidence. People are willing to get sucked into the tabloids and packs of Kit-Kats rather than stand drearily and wait without occupation.

Exceeding expectations also finds poignancy in the line business. If a wait is supposed to be 45 minutes but ends after 30 minutes, the people in line will have a general good feeling about their experience. Stone explains: “This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests — never customers, always guests — are pleasantly surprised when they ascend Space Mountain ahead of schedule.”

The breaking of expectations allows for a very positive emotion to be associated with the waiting experience. Researchers Ziv Carmon and Daniel Kahneman note that people tend to remember the final moments of a “queuing experience.” If it ends with people happy, they’ll come back. If not, they will remain bitter to the experience even if the majority was pleasant.

Perhaps the most influential component to line psychology is a queues perceived fairness. If waiting for a high-value item such as a new Apple iProduct, people are more willing to endure long lines. It seems fair that the value outweighs the misery of the wait and the positive feeling at the end—”I have the new iPhone!”—definitely helps. But when all things are equal, people can easily feel cheated by their waiting experience. When there are multiple lines, such as at a grocery store, people get upset if they pick the wrong line that has a longer wait. This choice is mostly out of their direct control, cutting and skipping in line is not.

People hate cutters,2 even if it occurs behind them in line and doesn’t affect their wait. The general idea is that “first come, first served” rules the psychology of line-sitting. And whenever that law is broken the line inhabitants rebel.

The root of such dissatisfaction isn’t clear. Maybe it is best attributed to human restlessness and the need to continuously be occupied and completing tasks. The results and effects of line-created stasis are definite. When waiting, keep busy and take comfort in the fact most companies are trying to trick you into enjoying your wait.

1 Larson is a world-renowned line expert, which is to say a highly specialized systems engineer. While his job might sound downright goofy, his role allows him to apply science and math to everyday interactions to raise the quality of life.
2 In July, 2012 a 67-year-old man stabbed a fellow line dweller outside a post office in Colesville, New Hampshire. The reasoning: the older man thought the other guy cut him in line, so he cut him back.


“Why Waiting is Torture,” Alex Stone, New York Times

  • strathmeyer

    Am I missing something by not waiting in lines? I walked into a bagel place today and there was a line so I had to *gasp* eat half an hour later and at the bank one of the ATM’s was broken and there was a line so I had to *gasp* walk around the corner to the next one. As long as America is lazy and you don’t drive a car (DMV) you’ll never need to wait in a line. Now, these busses take forever…

    • http://theairspace.net/ Blake J. Graham

      strathmeyer You’re occupying time by going to a different source for the same outcome (assuming all bagel joints are created equal). Perhaps the calculus of the optimization makes your total trip less than waiting in one particularly long line, but you have to factor in heading to one ATM, then leaving for another into your total trip.In a world of inequity, it’s hard to go to a different baggage claim than the one your bag is at, or a different doctor’s office from the one your appointment is scheduled at.But, no: you’re not missing anything by not waiting in lines.

  • Cuttin like my daddy

    “People hate cutters”So true. I’d cut a cutter.

    • http://theairspace.net/ Blake J. Graham

      @Cuttin like my daddy please don’t cut your daddy. 

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