Why Waiting in Line Feels So Long

Posted: September 13, 2012 in Daily Life
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s been a long day, and you’ve stopped by the grocery store to buy some pick-me-up mint chocolate chip ice cream. You navigate efficiently through the store, find your target, and analyze the lines for the quickest exit. Picking the line with the fewest people, you patiently wait to check out. The line is moving slowly. You peruse the tabloids while you wait; there’s apparently been some sort of tussle between the cast members of The Jersey Shore. Your eyes begin to wander. You notice that there are now several types of Twix bars, one with, mmm, peanut butter. You look longingly at the ice cream, melting on the conveyor belt. How much time does the person in front of you need to buy 23 items? The lines around you are moving at a brisk pace, the customers leaving happily with their groceries. It isn’t fair; you’ve been waiting here for–oh. Four minutes.

To many people, waiting in line can seem interminable. Researchers have come up with some theories as to why waiting in lines is source of common frustration, including our inability to handle uncertainty and the need to occupy our time.

The uncertainty of how long we will be waiting begins the frustration of the grocery queue. One of the reasons waiting in line can seem longer than it should be is because it’s impossible to predict how much time you’ll be standing there; people are more patient if they are told a specific wait time than if they are left to guess how long a wait will take. Unfortunately, deciding how fast the line will move depends on a few unpredictable factors. There’s the number of people, sure, but you also need to calculate how many items are on the conveyor belt and how many items are hidden in carts, how fast the cashier is at scanning items, how many coupons the customer in front of you will want to use, and how much small talk the people in front of you will make before checking out. And that’s assuming all the prices are accurately marked.

Another reason waiting in line can feel like  a struggle is because people have a natural tendency to occupy their time. While you’re waiting in line, there is only a finite number of ways you can entertain yourself; reading the headlines on the tabloid magazines and finding a new recipe for cooking ribs will only occupy you for so long. Grocery stores take advantage of this phenomenon by putting impulse buys by the register; they know that you’ll be tempted to add new items to your cart if it feels like you’re doing something with your time.

Finally, the process of checking out at the grocery store often violates our perception of fairness. Grocery stores usually have multiple queues, with some moving faster than others. Since each line will operate at a different pace than the others, it almost feels that the lines moving faster than the one you chose are cheating. You know in your mind that the cashier had to call the manager to find out how to process an item, but a part of you still feels that the people who joined another line after you started in yours shouldn’t get to leave before your shopping is finished.

Maybe this means we should be more like the person laughing at the tabloid headphones while griping into their cellphone about how slow the line is moving; apparently, they’ve got it all figured out. Do you ever feel frustrated when you’re waiting in line?

  1. Marcia says:

    Oh, boy, do I! And I have a gift for finding the very slowest moving line in the entire store, even though I am dedicated to choosing the FASTEST one. How does THAT happen? But the most frustrating thing for me is the fact that there are TWENTY-TWO registers in my local WalMart, and yet, I’ve never seen more than six open at a time, no matter how busy it is. What the…???

    I love this post, and I do think the everyday explanations presented above are right on target, as far as they go. Another topic we can all identify with. Thanks!

  2. seakist says:

    I’m probably one of the rare people who doesn’t mind waiting in a grocery line and I always pick the line with the nicest cashier, not the shortest line. I’d rather wait and have someone who is nice and enjoys their job than go fast but have a jerk with attitude problems (and those people bag the worst and make the bags super heavy).

    Waiting in line at a grocery store is fun because I enjoy looking at what others are buying and reading the magazines. It’s also a treat to just stop doing stuff and just stand around being a bum for a few minutes. (I feel the same about sitting in traffic or waiting at a red light). It’s just nice to slow down once in awhile — for those of us always on the go.

  3. caitlinstern says:

    I stick a book in my purse and read it while waiting, glancing up every page or so. Lines don’t bother me unless I finish my book!

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