Everyone hates waiting in line. It's boring, it's annoying, and you actively feel your life slipping away as you do it. You might think the solution to this problem would be common courtesy and fair play. You'd be wrong.

Turns out there's an entire field of research called "queuing theory." Some of it is innocuous, dealing only with how to manage a group of customers so that they are filed quickly and easily into lines that can process their needs efficiently. Corporations have nearly as much to gain as customers by getting the greatest quantity of people out the door,with their desired items in the shortest amount of time. The "nearly" is the problem here. If a short amount of time isn't possible, corporations have a lot to gain by keeping people in line past when they want to be in line, which is why many of the studies in queuing research are done on "managing impatience."


Announcing false waiting times is a great way to manage impatience. It filters out the people who aren't willing to wait that long, and the remaining people are happy that the wait wasn't as long as they expected it was going to be. Another way to manage expectation is to hide the length of the line, which is why lines wrap around buildings.

The best way, it seems, is to make people wait in line well before they ever know that they're waiting. An airport that got a lot of complaints by people who didn't like waiting for their luggage shuffled their arrivals procedure around so the plane would land at the opposite end of the airport as the luggage carousels. The distance was trivial to the employees, who knew the layout of the airport and knew the bulk of the work consisted of loading the baggage, not moving it from one place to another. For people trying to make their way through an unfamiliar space, and having to walk from one end of an airport to another, the distance and complication cut into their waiting time. They walked to the baggage carousel and their bags came tumbling down straight away. What luck!

So if you find yourself having to navigate your way to the top of a building, go through an elaborate check-in procedure, fill out some forms, and verify some information, only to come upon a surprisingly short wait in line, you were probably waiting in line all along.


In the past, I once read about a solution to long lines that I think is kind of noble, because it takes away the dishonesty. A group of bank tellers are ready to help customers in a line. Instead of helping the first person in line, the one that has been waiting there the longest, they serve the last person in line. Now, if the line doesn't grow too long, the first person will eventually get served. If people keep coming in, however, the first person will never get served. After a little while, the first person knows this, and will leave the line. Sure, that's unpleasant, but think of all the people who were served the moment they walked in!

I know this sounds dystopian, but lines work because they exploit our capacity for hope. We know that if we just wait long enough, we'll get served. And maybe that will be worth it! Think about how the world would be if people simply knew that if the line got too long it wasn't worth waiting in. Wouldn't it be kind of nice if most of the time we got what we wanted right away, but sometimes we could look at our situation, realize the wait certainly isn't going to be worth it, and just bail out?

[Via Single-Server Queues with Impatient Customers, Queuing with Impatient Customers and Ordered Service, Why Waiting is Torture]