The psychology of waiting

  • Updated: August 20, 2014 - 1:27 PM
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People wait in line to enter the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas Monday, July 28, 2014, in Las Vegas. Rick Harrison, owner of the pawn shop and one of the stars of the reality television series Pawn Stars, has proposed building a shopping plaza on land nearby. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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There’s a method to the madness of waiting in line.

David Maister, a retired Harvard professor, is generally considered the expert on such things. Although his research focused on how businesses could keep people who are waiting in line happier — or, at least, less unhappy — his work is worth pondering any place we end up waiting.

Among his findings:

Activity makes waits seem shorter. Hotels put mirrors by the elevators so we can spend the time fussing with our hair or adjusting our ties.

Anxiety makes waits seem longer. This is what happens when we’re worried about a movie selling out before we reach the box office.

The wait seems shorter once we start what we came for, even if that start is mostly an illusion. That’s why clinics shuttle patients into an exam room long before the doctor is ready for them.

Indefinite waits seem longer. Thus, the electronic signs on busy freeways advising us how long it will take to reach certain points.

Our perspective at the end is paramount. If we’re told that the wait will be 30 minutes and it turns out to be only 25, we think that we got lucky. But if it takes 35 minutes, we feel cheated. As a result, it’s common for restaurants to exaggerate the projected waiting time for a table.

Unexplained waits seem longer. We’re more patient about our plane sitting on the airport tarmac once the pilot announces, “We’re waiting for another plane to back away from the gate.”

Equitable waits seem shorter. We don’t mind people using the supermarket express lane because it seems fair that someone getting just a box of breakfast cereal and a quart of milk shouldn’t have to wait as long as folks buying a week’s worth of food. Of course, this effect backfires when someone tries to game the system by sneaking through the express lane with extra items.

Solo waits feel longer. If you’re headed toward a long line, bring a friend.

From: David Maister, “The Psychology of Waiting Lines”

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