Queuing: The Waiting Game

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Queuing: The Waiting Game

Patience, n. A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue. (Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary, 1906).

An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening. (Proverb)

Many businesses are rightly concerned about customer disgruntlement at waiting times.

People in line at airports now tweet their frustration. There are occasional revolts of nice, normal, well-behaved people, who have simply ’had enough’. They shout, they sing, they rush the barricades to humiliate their tormentors.

Waiting is often the cause of road rage. And consider all the issues about NHS patients on the waiting-list for operations, waiting times in A&E and those who, once admitted to a hospital, spend time waiting for a bed.

There are three British ways of looking at those who phlegmatically and stoically endure the long, tedious and time-wasting queuing process.

First, the orderly queue is, and always was, a myth. It is a story we told ourselves that was never true. More a product of wartime propaganda movies than any reality. We never liked queuing, pushed ahead where we could, and mumbled and grumbled the whole time.

Second, the queue is associated with dull, sheep-like drones, beaten into submission by an inefficient system. We should adopt a ’customers of the world unite’ manifesto, and refuse to accept this result of incompetence. It is only the foolish who tolerate it.

Third, we should be amazingly proud of this quiet, orderly and dignified display of one of our great virtues. Too many people suffer from hurry sickness, dysfunctional impulsivity and childlike impatience and could learn a great deal from the fair play and equality of learning to wait. After all, postponement of gratification is one of the signs of maturity.

To the ’modern’ person, waiting can be described quite simply as aggravating, demoralizing and frustrating. It causes tension and is expensive.

There is a surprising amount of academic literature on the psychology of queuing. For instance, people who study waiting behaviour have come up with certain laws and observations that have, of course, consequences.

1 Occupied time feels shorter. Give people something to do or distract their attention. Make them walk round and round on maze-like paths. Give them television to watch, music to listen to. The worst is letting them grow surly and listless; they then mumble to each other about starting a revolt.

2 Uncertainty makes waiting seem longer. Tell them (roughly) how long they have to wait and people are more accepting of the delay. The tube and the buses have twigged this. The ’guestimations’ need not be accurate; precision does not matter. Information takes away the ambiguity and gives a person the confidence that the system is still running.

3 Anxiety makes the wait seem longer. ’Will it ever come, will I make my next meeting and will I make the connection?’ Explanation and reassurance works. Again, music might help. Too-frequent apologies don’t. Best to be the reassuring parent, as when junior says ’Daddy, Daddy, are we nearly there yet?’ And miles from your destination and profoundly lost, you confidently proclaim, ’Nearly, darling, almost there!’

4 Unanticipated and unexplained waits are worse. Some organizations have twigged the explanation bit. Your train/flight is late (and we profoundly apologize) due to the late arrival of the other train/plane. Yes, but why was that? The guard did not pitch up, the points failed at Swindon, there were tropical storms over the Congo. Best appeal to ’Act-of-God’ explanations, which suggest possible danger.

5 Unfair waits are much more aggravating than equitable waits. Nothing is worse than seeing someone semi-legitimately avoid the queue. The fast trackers who buy their way out; the cabin crew who get some privileged exit; the locals who have twice as many people manning the desks as the aliens. The spirit of ’all in it together’, ’equal suffering’ helps.

6 Solo waits seem longer than group or social waits. This is a difficult one, but explains the idea of a waiting room or one of those holding pens at airports.

There are fascinating studies of what people do in queues to reduce their frustration (Pamies, Ryan, & Valverde, 2016). All sorts of factors influence how people react to queues.


The psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his research on obedience, studied queuing many years ago. In one study his student assistants went to different queues in betting shops, railway stations and elsewhere. They were told to do the following:

1 Enter a queue at between the third and fourth person.

2 Say in a neutral tone: ’Excuse me, I’d like to get in here.’

3 Step into line and face forward.

4 Only leave the queue when someone admonished them or after one minute, whichever was sooner.

Surprisingly, on only 10 per cent of occasions were queue-jumpers physically ejected from the line. In fact people did very little — there were dirty looks, tut-tutting and shrugging shoulders. And this was New York. In further studies he found that doubling the number of jumpers doubled the rate of objections. So people are prepared to put up with the odd deviant but not if there are more.

He argued from his findings:

1 People in line are not really a group. Group formation is difficult when people are stood one behind the other, all facing in the same direction. Consequently social order is weak.

2 It is costly to deal with deviants. Challenging queue-jumpers could mean losing your own place in the line.

We can cope with a few deviants. Social systems have to tolerate some deviance otherwise they may quickly break down, i.e. a fight may start and everyone is delayed while it is sorted out.


Clemler, E.C., & Schneider, B. (1989). Toward understanding and controlling customer dissatisfaction with waiting. Marketing Science Institute. Working Paper.

Fagundes, D. (2016). The social norms of waiting in line. Law and Social Inquiry.

Larson, R.Q. (1987). Perspectives On Queues: Social Justice and the psychology of queuing. Operations Research, 35, 895—905.

Zhou, R., & Soman, D. (2008). Consumers waiting in queues: The role of first-order and second-order justice. Psychology & Marketing, 25(3), 262—279.