Why nobody wants to stand last in line – and what service providers can do about itRelevant topics Archive, Conversion
Nobody wants to finish last. Regardless of which sphere of live you investigate, people take significant effort not to end up in the painful last position. Diners in restaurants rarely order the cheapest wine on the menu—with preferences clustering around the second cheapest option (McFadden, 1999). The pain of rejection stings most when one is picked last in gym class, whereas the person in the second-last spot breathes a sigh of relief (Weir, 2012).
But what about waiting in queues? Is waiting actually more painful for the last person in line compared to someone waiting an equal amount of time with one additional person behind him?
Through an impressive series of five studies on both in-store and simulated queuing environments, the behavioral scientist Ryan W. Buella investigated the psychological dynamics of queuing. He discovered that being the last one in line carries a powerful psychological difference that has striking consequences on our behavior and satisfaction.
Last place aversion
When observing shoppers in a real grocery store, Buella found out that people standing last in the check-out line are more likely to switch queues. This effect persists regardless of the number of people ahead of them, how long they have been waiting, and how fast the line is moving.
Further studies on waiting dynamics shed light the psychological underpinnings of our jumpy behavior when we’re standing last in line. Interestingly, our internal time perception operates differently when there’s nobody behind us. This position increases perception of wait duration (regardless of actual duration) and diminishes satisfaction. Even more jarringly, people who spent the duration of their wait in last place reported declines in satisfaction that were the same as waiting an additional 70 seconds for service. This dramatically increased the likelihood of people to switch queues or to abandon queues altogether by a factor of 2.5.
Although these effects are striking, they don’t explain why this phenomenon occurs. What causes our brains to perceive the world differently when standing in the last place?
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The psychology behind ‘last-place aversion’
To understand why standing last in line evokes so much psychological discomfort, we must turn to the social psychological process of downwards comparison. Because in our daily lives we have a hard time valuing our current situation in absolute terms, we often times look around to our neighbors to make a relative assessment. From body image to wealth, we simply have to look at others in order to understand ourselves.
As our brains have no way of interpreting a modern-day concept as ‘waiting time acceptability’ in any absolute way, we resort to social comparison processes to assess whether we’re in a good place. Our subjective well-being is instantly enhanced when we compare ourselves to someone who is less fortunate than we are. Your brain doesn’t care whether it has to wait 5 or 10 minutes standing in line to board an airplane – as long as there’s some poor fellow standing behind you who has to wait just a bit longer.
However, this joy of feeling better off vanishes once you’re that last person closing the queue. Mentally, we ask ourselves: “If nobody is willing to wait longer than me, then is staying in this queue worthwhile?” This thought causes psychological distress, tremendously raising the chance of you jumping into another line.
As most of our cognitive heuristics tend to serve us quite well in our day-to-day lives by helping us make good decisions with minimal effort, this begs the question whether or not our hard-wired last place aversion is actually maladaptive. The next section will address this question.
Why we stay too long in queues we should leave – and why we leave queues we should stay in
Prior experimental research suggests that customers often make suboptimal abandonment decisions— staying too long in queues they should have abandoned and abandoning queues in which they should have remained (Janakiraman et al. 2011). The reason for this suboptimal decision making is that different pieces of information are salient at different times in the waiting line process.
From a cost-benefit perspective, the visual cue of a long line in front of the last-place customer makes the costs of waiting salient in our minds, which alarms our brain into a state of abandonment. Even if the newest arrival in line finds herself in the smoothest running queue on earth, there’s no way for her to know when each person in front of her arrived, and how the queue formed. There’s only one piece of information that can be readily used in weighing the pros and cons of leaving the queue: the number of people behind you. And for every second that number stays at zero, this increases the chance of you jumping ship.
Once new people queue behind us, our biased mind takes a different turn when the so-called sunk cost fallacy comes into play. This fallacy states that people have a tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made. It’s ‘throwing good money after bad’. In the context of queuing, it causes you to be extremely reluctant to give up your treasured position in line, even when an objectively better option has become available. In the grocery store, I’ve seen shoppers standing glued to their check-out queue, refusing to walk over to a no-queue check-out station that just came in service.
How to create the perfect queue for waiting time perception
Previous research on the psychology of cueing has found there are two main factors that determine our overall waiting satisfaction: pace of progress and the visibility of the end goal.
Firstly, we want to feel we’re making progress as often as possible. For this reason, it’s psychologically more pleasing to stand in a single large line (which progresses often) than one out of multiple lanes (which progresses slower within each lane). Now we know that this single-line queuing philosophy works so well not only because it guarantees the shortest time interval between each ‘moment of progress’, but also because it keeps the horrendous ‘last place’ feeling at a minimum as new people join the queue continuously.
Secondly, having the end goal in viewing distance keeps us happy. Taking these two requirements together, the most effective line is a single line that bends in a snake-like pattern. This allows for a short direct distance to the end-of-line goal, while still offering the joy of progress offered by a single line format.
- People who spent the duration of their wait in last place reported declines in satisfaction that were the same as waiting an additional 70 seconds for service
- Being last dramatically increases the likelihood of people to switch queues or to abandon queues altogether by a factor of 2.5
- The psychological reason behind last place aversion is that it makes downward social comparison impossible.
- There are two main factors that determine our overall waiting satisfaction: pace of progress and the visibility of the end goal
- The perfect queue lay-out is a single line that bends in a snake-like pattern
Generally, when visiting a supermarket, you don't want to waste your precious time by searching for the products you're looking for. In order to help us making decisions, our brains have a few biases in their way of seeing things.
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