Why You’re Always In the Slowest-Moving Line, According to Science
Nobody likes waiting in lines. And yet for something we loathe so much, we end up stuck in them almost constantly.
In the U.S. alone, we collectively spend approximately 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. Want your morning coffee at Starbuck’s? There’s a line. Buying groceries? You’ll absolutely have a line. Going to the movies, or a live concert, or a hot new restaurant, or the DMV, or through airport security? Expect a line.
It’s a great solution, if you happen to have an extra $2,000 to buy a “BeamPro Remote Presence Device.” So that’s $600 for the phone if you wait in line, or $2,600 if you want to send a robot in your place.
If you hate lines enough, the robot option might still make sense.
(Need something to read the next time you’re stuck in line? May we recommend How to Pleasure a Woman? It’s your complete guide to making her feel like the luckiest gal on the planet.)
One reason lines are so intolerable is that we suspect they can be beaten. There must be an algorithm to it, we tell ourselves. A method to the madness, and if we can figure out what that is, we can outsmart lines.
Think about the last time you were at Target, and you were faced with several different checkout lane options. Who among us hasn’t paused and studied each lane, as if we could crack the code if we just had the right information?
Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher and current Chief Academic Officer at Desmos (an online graphing calculator), has developed a theory for choosing the shortest line at a supermarket or box store.
What’s the first thing you see when you’re sizing up the person in front of you in line? How much crap they’re buying.
“Every item in everyone’s baskets and carts has an average time cost associated with it,” Meyer says. And that time cost is around 3 seconds per item. But what about the number of people in line? That may have a bigger impact on how long a line’s wait will be.
Meyer says that with every customer, you have to allot for “time to say hello and goodbye to the cashier, pay for items, and leave the bagging area. I measured that time cost at 41 seconds.”
That’s the equivalent of around 13 items. So when looking at lines, you should favor the lines with more people over the lines with less people buying more stuff
Robert Samuel, the founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, stands in line for a living, and he’s got his own formula for determining which line will be shortest.
“Between two lines, you always want to go to the left,” he says. “The majority of us are right-handed and the right side line will always tend to be the longest. We instinctively go to the right.”
Also, he adds, the line on the left, at least in fast food restaurants, is the one farthest from the door.
The biggest problem with the statistical number-crunching is that it’s inherently imperfect. Sometimes the theories work, sometime they don’t. Because you can never plan for the guy paying in change, or the woman who wants to pay with four different credit cards.
There are too many variables, too many ways that even the most perfect system can go wrong.
Maybe we should try something different. Rather than trying to weasel our way out of what used to be a mildly annoying but inevitable fact of life, maybe we should ask why standing in lines makes us so unreasonably angry in the first place.
And yes, “unreasonable” is a fair word. We’ve grown increasingly impatient as human beings.
In a 2012 study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, online users abandoned a video that wasn’t loading properly after 2 seconds. Yes, 2 seconds! We can’t even think of a comparison to demonstrate how insane it is to abandon something after 2 seconds.
In the same study, roughly half of those frustrated web users gave up after a whopping 10 seconds. Or, about the time it took you to read this paragraph twice.
Suffice is to say, as a culture, we have the collective patience of a 4-year old on a couple hour’s sleep. Are lines as bad as we think? Not even close. In fact, most of the epic horribleness of a long line might be all in our head.
Have you ever stood in a line that was moving too slow, and somebody arrives after you, finds a spot in a different line, and his line starts mysteriously moving faster?
Did you think, “Oh, lucky guy, he’ll probably get served up to a minute before me?”
No, you thought, “Asshole! I was here first! This is an outrage! A crime against humanity!”
Richard Larson, Ph.D., is a professor at MIT, and he’s had this exact experience, and the exact same reaction.
“Three weeks later, I was still angry,” he says. “And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘I’m an MIT professor! Why am I letting this get the better of me?’ That’s what got me interested in the psychology of queuing.”
There are no written rules for standing in line. Yet we all know them. There’s an expectation of social justice. It’s first come, first serve, and that is the law. It might as well be a commandment written with lightning on a stone tablet.
“Nothing angers a human being like the sense that somebody who deserves to be served after me somehow gets served before me,” Larson says.
How do you fix that? Simple: By realizing that you can’t.
And also, that it doesn’t matter.
Somebody getting to pay for their groceries a few minutes faster than you paid for groceries doesn’t matter.
If someone cuts in line, and they get the thing you wanted before you get the thing you wanted, it honestly doesn’t matter.
Researchers at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College examined “line-intrusion scenarios” in an audience waiting to enter a U2 concert in 2008. They found that concertgoers were just as upset with line cuts that occurred behind them—and thus wouldn’t affect their position in any feasible way—as they were with cuts that happened in front of them.
Lines don’t make us insane. Us worrying about lines, and trying to outsmart lines, and feeling moral outrage when lines don’t operate with the respect for social fairness we demand, that’s what makes us insane.
But there is a solution. It won’t help you find a shorter, faster line. But it may help you feel less stressed out by them.
In 2014, Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Cornell University—along with several others psychologists and researchers—investigated why some lines are less maddening than others.
Why, for instance, do we have no problem waiting in line to get a table at an amazing restaurant, but waiting to pay for groceries fills us with rage?
Why do people gladly wait in line for hours at Disney World, but a few extra seconds at the ATM makes our blood boil?
As Gilovich discovered, it’s because we value experiences over products.
Waiting in line for an experience doesn’t feel like a chore. We’re not thinking about the wait, we’re thinking about what we’re waiting for. And that excitement drives happiness.
So what if we tried shifting our thinking? The next time you’re in a line, don’t think about what you’re buying. Think about what you’re going to do with it.
Focus on the experience you’ll be having later because of these few extra minutes of inconvenience.
“This has merit,” Gilovich tells us. “In other studies, we’ve found that when people frame the same object—a 3D-TV, a boxed set of music CDs—in experiential rather than material terms, we get the same reported difference in satisfaction.”
Easier said than done? Absolutely it is. But the choice is up to you.
(For more ideas on how to improve your life, pick up a copy of The Better Man Project, the new book from the Editor in Chief of Men’s Health. It’s got 2,476 tips and techniques that will flatten your belly, sharpen your mind, and keep you happy and healthy for life.)
The next time you’re in a line that doesn’t seem to be moving, you can either try and crunch the numbers, calculating whether switching to another lane will get you out of here 36 seconds faster.
You can guard your post and make damn sure no late arrivals get satisfaction.
Or you can close your eyes and think about all the fun you’re going to have later. Your call.