Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

Years ago Fedex ran a series of advertisements in which they noted; “Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive.”  Much has been written in relation to the psychology, dynamics and science of waiting. The truth of this assertion can't be denied.  Few of us haven’t felt these emotions at one time or another. And many of us would have seen the collapse of queues in various forms and places. I recently watched this disorder (mob behaviour) arising suddenly from a perfectly ordered (behaved) queue outside a Sydney Apple store. I shall say more on this in a minute.

It’s understandable that in some, perhaps many  waiting situations there is no visible order to the waiting line. Waiting for a train on a busy platform comes to mind. Shopping for sales on Boxing day is another. Here the level of anxiety can be quite high and the group waiting resemble less a queue and more a mass of humanity. Instead of being able to relax, each individual remains in a state of nervousness about whether their priority in the line is being preserved. But what about an orderly queue? The assumption here is that a first in, first out (FIFO) system prevails.  Sasser, Olsen and Wycoff (1979) showed that one of the most frequent irritants mentioned by customers at restaurants is the prior seating of those who have arrived later.

And, in 1982 social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling described the broken windows theory. Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters. I’m not suggesting here that an orderly queue of people waiting optimistically for their new shiny gadget would over time track the theory of broken windows. However I am proposing that the smallest of triggers, perceived or otherwise, can drive a well-ordered queue that’s been maintained for many countless hours if not days to collapse rapidly and violently - the scene, as it turned out outside that Apple store in the very early hours of the morning.

In 1985 David Maister provided some insight in the psychology of waiting lines.  He proposed the following:

  • People want to get started.
  • Anxiety makes waits seem longer.
  • Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits
  • Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits
  • Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits
  • The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait
  • Solo waits feel longer than group waits

So what turned people, mostly adults, who were otherwise waiting their turn patiently and enthusiastically into a mob of lawless, aggressive queue jumpers requiring the intervention of a significant number of police officers that threatened delaying the opening of store?

For starters, you could argue that there was an element of that “uncertain wait.” Rumours were spreading, as they do, up and down the large queue that the said shiny gadget was in short supply and therefore many will miss out. Also, the idea that “unfair waits are longer than equitable waits” was beginning to take hold. People were reserving places in the queue for their family and others.  Many in the queue were complaining that the queue in front of them was getting progressively longer than behind them. And, now that I’m thinking about it… was the product of such perceived value that it justified the multi-day wait? Perhaps so… but only until the next new new thing!

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