We reportedly spend about two years of our lives just waiting in line. It seems like much more than that, especially with the Christmas holidays and all of those lines at checkout counters and airports.
After the jump, an excerpt and link to an article about the psychology and mathematics of waiting in line. Wherein we learn that it isn’t just the time spent waiting that bothers us, it’s factors like boredom and the perception of unfairness. Also, which is better, multiple parallel lines (one per cash register) or one long serpentine line (served by multiple cash registers at a time)? And how can the misery of waiting in line be mitigated (ask Disney)?
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.