People waiting in line
Monday, February 4, 2019
By Tom Snee

Waiting is inevitable, but a new study from the University of Iowa finds that people perceive their wait to be shorter if they think about things in more concrete detail while they’re stuck in line.

The study found that thinking in terms that are more detailed and concrete causes people to perceive their wait time to be shorter than those who think in more general, abstract ways. Study co-author Alice Wang, a marketing professor in the UI’s Tippie College of Business, says the study suggests this is because those who think more abstractly have fewer things to think about and start to feel bored, then infer from this boredom that they must have waited a long time.

However, people who think more concretely are more easily distracted by thoughts unrelated to their wait and so feel like time passes by quickly.

Wang says the study suggests strategies that business managers can use to reduce their customers’ aggravation while waiting in line. While these ways of thinking are baked into our personality to some degree, she says they can still be changed by asking questions that vary how a person thinks. That means someone who is more apt to think abstractly can be prodded to think more concretely, and perceive the wait time as shorter.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments to see how people perceive wait times based on their way of thinking, and if that way of thinking can be changed to influence their perception of how much time passed during their wait. In one field experiment, researchers randomly surveyed diners as they entered a restaurant. One group of patrons was asked a line of questions designed to make them think in more universal, abstract terms (“tell us what comes to mind when you think about this coffee shop: taste, convenience, or environment”). The other line of questions made them think in more concrete details (“tell us what comes to mind when you think about the coffee shop: it has tasty sandwiches; it is located close to classrooms and labs; or the tables and chairs are clean and the decorations are nice”).

After eating, surveyors asked the diners to estimate how much time they’d been waiting. Wang says those who were prompted to think in more concrete terms consistently estimated the wait to have taken less time than those who were thinking more abstractly.

Wang says managers can reduce customer aggravation while they’re waiting by distracting them from their wait and encouraging them to think about concrete details. They could decorate the premises with photos or tchotchkes, or use the color red, which previous studies suggest leads people to focus on concrete details rather than global stimuli.

Wang’s study, “How Long Did I Wait? The Effect of Construal Levels on Consumers’ Wait Duration Judgments,” was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Her co-authors are Jiewen Hong and Rongrong Zhou of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.