Why We Hate Waiting in Line

Americans will spend 37 billion hours waiting in lines this year but how we experience that wait depends more on our psychology than it does any objective measure of time spent waiting. 

What's the Latest Development?


Americans will spend roughly 37 billion hours waiting in lines this year and whether we feel merely inconvenienced or thoroughly frazzled by the wait depends more on our psychology than on any objective measure of time spent waiting. Standing in line for five minutes represents unoccupied time, which people tend to report as lasting longer than the same five minutes of occupied time. In an attempt to alleviate our stress, businesses have responded by occupying us, whether that means placing mirrors in elevators, or tabloids and packets of gum at the grocery store checkout lane.

What's the Big Idea?

Beyond our individual experiences of waiting in line, orderly queues represent an attempt by society to be fair, with those who cut the line subject not only to the ire of people behind them but people in front of them, as well. "A study of fans in line for U2 tickets found that people are just as upset by slips and skips that occur behind them, and thus don’t lengthen their wait, as they are by those in front of them." Our fairness standard also states that waiting time should be proportional to the value of what we are waiting for, which explains the express checkout lane at grocery stores, a rare socially-sanctioned violation of first-come-first-served principle.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

 

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