Psychology of waiting in Queue

Imagine you are standing in a queue to checkout your groceries and there are around 10 people ahead of you. There are 5 counters in total and you are standing in the 4th counter since it appears like it is moving faster and the queue length is almost same in all the counters.

With no new person joining any of the queues, you still stand last in your queue and there are still 8 people ahead. After few seconds, it appears like 3rd counter’s queue is moving faster and your queue is having a slow pace. Still, you ignore your intuition and stand in your own queue. After few more seconds, you see a new person joining the 3rd queue. Your intuition says the 3rd queue is actually moving faster, that’s why the new person has chosen it. There are still 7 people in your queue and you stand last. Agreeing to your intuition, you get out of your queue and join the 3rd queue. Moment you get into the 3rd queue, you see two people (Lets name Timon and Pumba, with Timon ahead of Pumba) joining your previous queue. With you still waiting to have a step forward, you see Timon and Pumba already taking one step ahead in moving forward. What does your mind say now? You convince yourself that you will get your ticket earlier than if you were in your previous queue. You take Timon as reference and you keep comparing your current position with Timon. With one person still ahead of you, you see that Timon completes his buy process.

So what is actually happening in this scenario? Harvard business school did a survey and observed people in queues at grocery stores. Switching the queue for one time resulted in waiting 10% longer than if they had stayed in their queue. And switching twice resulted in waiting for 67% more. To put it in perspective, if you had spent 5 mins by not switching queues, you will spend 5 min 30 seconds / 8 min 21 seconds if you switch queue once/ twice respectively.

Why do we switch queues? Criteria to select a queue will first depend on the length of the queue. Less people in front, more likely you will select it. Once we choose the queue, we take a reference person in all other queues and keep comparing if they are ahead of you or not. We never want to be left behind when other person of same quality is heading faster. As when we see other person moving faster and no one is there to follow you, you get attracted by their moves and start to follow them.

What do we gain by switching queue? Save some minutes and look forward to do something else? Does everyone really have a better way to spend those minutes rather than waiting in a queue? Same happens when you have a short term goal in mind. Its human tendency to compete for the goal and try to achieve faster than others. If you had stayed on your path without looking at others pace, you would have achieved your goal earlier. Have your own reference to compare your progress. If you have someone to compete, it should be only YOU. Keep yourself busy that you never look at others. Never get influenced by valueless urgency.

Awaken your intellect and disobey your mind !

“Humans are very social creatures, and we are driven to compare ourselves to others. When we are feeling bad, one way we cope is by comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than we are.”

– Harvard Business School professor Ryan Buell.

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