Hate to Wait

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A number of years ago, the executives at a Houston airport solved the multiple complaints it received about wait times at the baggage carousel.

Their first response to the complaints was to increase the number of baggage handlers, thus lowering the wait time by 50 percent. But when the complaint calls and letters continued to pour in, the airport management decided to take a closer look at what happened between the time the passengers emerged from the jetway and when they stood awaiting their bags at the carousel.

They noted that it took only about one minute to walk from the plane to the baggage area, with the remainder of the wait time spent idly standing at the carousel.

So the airport decided on a new plan. They moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and in doing so caused the average time from the gate to the baggage carousel to increase to seven minutes.  The bags were delivered within the same number of minutes but the complaints dropped to nearly zero.

Why is waiting so difficult?

We grow up learning how to stand in line from the first day of pre-school until that wait in line to walk across a stage to grab that diploma. From four years of age, we’re taught not to push others in line, not to cut in front of people, to stand with our hands at our sides.

The psychology of queuing hints that when in a long line, several mental activities begin to occur at the same time.

First, we are in a state of heightened awareness—with an eye trained on any unfairness. People are generally happier with a longer first come first served line (Starbucks must be reading up on applied psychology) than they are with multiple lines in which one line moves faster than their own. We prefer a long line that treats us all equally to being left stranded while someone slowly writes out a check, meanwhile glimpsing the guy who arrived after we did, leaving the store because he chose the faster line.

Second, we don’t like waiting with nothing to do.  A doctor’s office is the classic challenge to even the most patient of us, (and remains well behind Disneyland, which uses optical illusion-like strategies to lift our attention away from long lines).

At the doc’s, we are escorted to a room, usually told to undress, and wait for an unspecified time in a gown. The perceived authority gradient between doctor and patient usually forbids our opening the exam room door and shouting, “Hello?  Am I next?”

A third process involves the virtual voices which inform us of the “approximate wait time” that banks and other businesses use on their help lines. The actual wait time is designed to be less than the stated time, thus increasing customer satisfaction—because even after a long wait, we are apparently happier when it ends sooner than we were told.

Our aversion to waiting is an innate “wiring” issue, and there are ways to make it easier on ourselves.  “Appreciate the wait” by reading, becoming mindful of ourselves in the moment by closing our eyes for a few moments, and accept that sometimes we’re just not in control.

Well, we’re really almost never in control, but it’s going to take longer than the line for Space Mountain to get comfortable with that.

Ruth Wimsatt is a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, and can be reached at (949) 222-3285 or [email protected]

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