Queuing Makes Us Mad, So Hurry Up and Wait

Everyone likes to consider that he or she is patient or at least think that he or she is. However, when it comes to standing in a line, especially a slow-moving line, this tends to be a very trial on how much patience a person does have. Over the years and through the reading of various articles on the subject, perhaps there is more behind the reasoning of why certain waiting periods pass faster than others. While there are many determining factors to consider, such as environment, cultural acceptance, and importance of the wait, three things are more common to the psychology behind our patience while standing in line: the perception, anxiousness, and order.

The most common type of waiting is based on perception of time.  This is what most of us today experience when waiting to pay for our basket of groceries, stand in a line at a fast food restaurant, or to ride an attraction at a theme park.  Standing in line with nothing to occupy the time, also known as unoccupied time, makes the time seem to pass by longer. According to William James, a noted philosopher, “Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself” (Maister 2005), paying attention to time, constantly looking at a watch or clock, makes the time pass more slowly. Many businesses and restaurants have realized the frustration people feel while waiting in line and, in turn, have developed techniques for keeping customers and guest occupied so long wait times pass quickly. “…the careful study by experts in the field of queuing psychology… can cut the frustration and make people feel better…” states Richard Larson, a director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Pawlowski 2008).

Not nearly as common as being unoccupied, many people tend to become anxious while choosing which line to stand in. Anxiety can be just as troublesome while waiting in line. A desire to get started or continue on with schedules or tasks that need to be done creates a feeling of eagerness. The most common situation where this can happen is when choosing which line to enter. Just about everyone has had the choice of “…choosing a line at the supermarket or airport, and stood there worrying that he or she had chosen the wrong line” (Maister 2005). The feeling of anxiety that the other line is moving faster creates an effect of that line is moving quickly and a bad decision has been made. This worry can be overcome, but not as easily as keeping oneself occupied.

Perhaps the least common waiting experience is an unfair waiting period. One of the main complaints of people waiting in line is when there is no order to the wait time. Restaurants are good example of this; large parties tend to wait longer than smaller parties even though the latter arrives much later. “…somebody has successfully ‘cut in front’ of you…” (Sasser, Olsen & Wycoff 1979) is a common thought when this happens and can create feelings of frustration, anxiety, and even anger amongst patrons. With no visible order to waiting periods, lines at subways, sporting events, and even the local movie theater have us rushing in to be first, despite the fact that there is really no need to worry. Whether or not one gets in first or last, everyone has to wait the same amount of time.

Learning and understanding the types of psychological effects of waiting in line can be beneficial. Next time the situation arises, spend time determining what effects are being felt and how to deal with them. In turn, the experience of waiting will pass by more quickly and maybe even more rapidly. Regardless of how long someone might have to wait, time will always remain a constant, and it is how people use their time that changes the perception of its passage.


Maister, D.H.  (2005), The psychology of waiting lines. Retrieved from http://www.davidmaister.com

Pawlowski, A. (2008), Queuing psychology: can waiting in line be fun? Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com/2008-11-20/tech/

Sasser, W.E., Olsen J., & Wyckoff, D.D. (1979), Management of service operations: text, cases, and readings. New York, NY: Allyn and Bacon.

Published by TF

I'm a fun-loving man who does business analytics and supply chain things.

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