Queuing – a quintessential British pastime? Don’t make me laugh.
There are few things that are enjoyable about standing around for excessive periods of time. It’s something that we spend an awful lot of time doing, but how often do we really dwell on the psychology behind it?
When it comes to queuing, a group of professors at University College London believe that six is the magic number.
On average, people will wait in a queue for around six minutes before they decide to give up, and six people is about the cutoff for the length of a queue that they’ll join.
This ‘rule of six’ is a bit of a simplification – as Adrian Furnham, one of the professors behind the study, said: “there have been observational studies where 95% of people will join five, then it goes down to 85%, then at seven it goes down further.”
“one factor that plays into how long a person will wait in the queue is the number of people behind them”
When you start to look at the length of time that people are willing to wait, again the “rule of six” can often fail to hold up hold up.
In fact, one factor that plays into how long a person will wait in the queue is the number of people behind them.
Taking this at face-value, it seems somewhat absurd; after all, the number of people behind you doesn’t affect the amount of time you’ll have to wait. However, it does have a psychological effect.
The more people that are behind you, the further along in the queue you feel as though you are, and such people have been proven to be willing to wait longer to get to the end. The more people that there are behind you, the more desirable the outcome appears and hence the more patience that people have to wait.
Still, if we assume that the length of a queue is one of the main factors in whether people will join it, we’d be better making lots of small queues for each cashier than a single, long queue, right?
“with just one queue, everyone moves at a faster rate, which keeps people happy as they get a sense of progress”
In fact, a ‘serpentine’ queue has actually been shown to be the best option, despite it appearing more daunting. With multiple queues, the subject has to make a decision as to which to pick, which become frustrating if they make the wrong choice and end up seeing the others moving faster.
With just one queue, everyone moves at a faster rate, which keeps people happy as they get a sense of progress. In fact, we can see such queues forming without us even thinking about it – think back to the last time you went to the Ram, and the tendency of people to form one large queue, much to the dismay of staff.
This brings us on to our final point – queue jumping. There is little more annoying than seeing someone push their way in in front of you; as Furnham put it: it leads to a “sense of injustice”.
Yet when faced with it, how do people react? A study in the 1980s saw people cutting into queues, and whilst it did prove stressful, most were only greeted by tutting.
In fact, only 10% of the time did someone protest – so it looks like, with queuing, cheats may prosper!