What really drives you crazy about waiting in line (it actually isn’t the wait at all)
By Ana Swanson
Nov 27 2015
If the people who study the psychology of waiting in line — yes, there is such a thing — have an origin story, it’s this:
It was the 1950s, and a high-rise office building in Manhattan had a problem. The tenants complained of an excessively long wait for the elevator when people arrived in the morning, took their lunch break, and left at night. Engineers examined the building and determined that nothing could be done to speed up the service.
Desperate to keep his tenants, the building manager turned to his staff for suggestions. One employee noted that people were probably just bored and recommended installing floor-to-ceiling mirrors near the elevators, so people could look at themselves and each other while waiting. This was done, and complaints dropped to nearly zero.
It’s a tale that appears in books and articles about organizational design, though it’s not clear whether it’s a real story or simply a parable. Regardless, the story offers a powerful insight into one of the most universal, and universally hated, things we do: waiting in line. It suggests that there are hidden and surprising factors that affect how we experience lines.
In the case of elevators, it wasn’t the wait that mattered. It was that we got bored while waiting.
While that story has become legend, it was not the first time people started thinking seriously about waiting, or queuing, as academics call it. A Danish engineer named A.K. Erlang developed the first mathematical models of how lines worked in the early 20th century to complement a new device at the time: the telephone.
Erlang’s work helped the phone company figure out how many phone lines and operators the old-fashioned central switchboard needed to keep customers from waiting too long. He used probability and statistics to model how bottlenecks form as customers arrive, and how quickly companies need to provide service to keep queues moving. His work inspired the next generation of mathematicians and engineers to take up the subject.
In those early days, engineers were focused solely on efficiency — how to serve as many customers as possible without cutting into a company’s profits. It wasn’t until 50 years later that researchers began to realize that there were subtler factors influencing people’s experience of waiting in line, including ideas of fairness, mismanaged expectations, and the strange and inaccurate way that most people perceive both time and pain.
Interestingly, it turns out that what you hate most about lines probably isn’t the length of the wait after all.
The business of lines
The time that people spend waiting in line, and how they feel when they do so, is a big deal for average people and the economy.
Altogether, some people spend a year or two of their lives waiting in line, estimates Richard Larson, a professor who studies queuing theory at MIT. This back-of-the envelope calculation includes less obvious types of queues, like driving in slower-than-normal traffic during a daily commute.*
And the way that businesses manage lines results in easily billions of dollars of gained and lost brand equity and consumer spending. A long and unpleasant wait can damage a customer’s view of a brand, cause people to leave a line or not enter it in the first place (what researchers respectively call “reneging” and “balking”), or discourage them from coming back to the store entirely.
Companies have come up with some novel solutions to shorten lines, including charging customers for skipping or advancing in the line. Examples include priority boarding on airplanes and special concession lines for NFL season-ticket holders. These new technologies seem to be cutting down on the amount of time spent waiting in line, though they are unlikely to get rid of waiting altogether.
Even so, businesses can still do a lot to improve customer experiences. As numerous studies show, how people feel when they wait in line often matters a lot more than the duration of the wait.