Why Switching to a Shorter Line Isn’t Always a Good Idea
Stay true to your queue. Harvard researchers say so.
Tempted to switch to a shorter line? Read this first!
It seems like a scene out of a sitcom. A group of friends are waiting in line at the movie theatre/coffee shop/grocery store and spot another line that is shorter. One friend goes rogue and jumps to that line, much to the chagrin of the friends who stay put. The line-jumper ends up getting service later, while the original liners take joy in the comeuppance. Cue laugh track.
We make the same assumption in real life, that a shorter line means a shorter waiting time, but is this valid? Researchers at Harvard Business School actually examined the practice of line-jumping, and the results show something entirely different.
The study focused on a concept called “last place aversion,” a person’s desire to not be last or in lower ranking than others. This concept can apply to knowing that you make less money than others, knowing that you are low in social hierarchy, and, of course, being last in line. In fact, lead study author Ryan Buell said that people last in line are almost 20 per cent less satisfied than if someone is behind them. (These nine quirky habits prove you’re smarter than everyone else.)
The first half of the research involved Buell observing customers at a multi-checkout grocery store to provide a point of reference for line times. The second half of the study involved a one-minute online survey for a separate group of participants, but there was a catch. In order to reach the survey, participants had to wait in a virtual line, with options to stay in their current line, switch to a secondary queue, or leave the waiting area entirely.
The study found that people who are last in line are four times as likely to line jump. One in five participants opted to switch to the other line but, on average, increased their wait time. The people that switched lines once waited 10 per cent longer, while people that switched lines twice ended up waiting 67 per cent longer.
“When we join a queue, we tend to make the most rational choice we can, which usually means joining the shortest queue,” Buell said. “But if we see a line moving faster, we might switch without having enough extra information, and we can often get it wrong.”
In other words, your last place aversion can cloud your judgment without taking other factors into account, like how many items everyone in a checkout line has. So if you want to avoid this folly, keep those eyes focused on the line you’re already in. Jumping around definitely won’t save you any time. (Here’s the one productivity trick the greatest thinkers in the world had in common.)
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