Why do we always feel that the other queue moves faster?
Everyone hates waiting in line. Especially when the retail locations don’t use a queue management system.
We’ve all been there. You’re at the grocery store, and it’s busy. You’ve come in to grab a few things and you scowl trying to find the shortest line to check out. You’re not sure which line to pick, so you choose one and get ready to wait.
A minute goes by and you notice the line next to you is advancing faster. You do a quick queue switch. As soon as you do, your old line starts to speed up again and fills up with a few more people. You can do nothing but shake your head. And the same thing happens with traffic. The classic film “Office Space” opens with a sequence so recognizable that we can’t help but laugh as the protagonist, late for work, tries to switch lanes only to be continuously stuck in the slower lane. These situations beg the question, why does it always seem like the other lane is moving faster?
The key word here is seem. The impression that the other queue moves faster, whether in a busy store or stuck on the highway, comes from a mental phenomenon known as illusory correlation. Illusory correlation is a key part of our cognitive functioning referred to as heuristics. Heuristics enables us to make connections and assumptions in order to think quickly and react to the world.
How illusory correlation works
Our minds are highly complex systems of memory, emotion and recognition. We are naturally more impacted by stronger sensations and experiences than weaker sensations, whether they be positive (joy, elation) or negative (despair, anger). Our memory reacts the same way, being more impressed by stronger experiences than weaker experiences. The stronger something is to us, the more it is salient. In short, we recognize and remember more salient things than less salient things.
Salient things are new, rare, shocking, or powerful. They stand out from the norm, so we pay more attention to them. Such cases include hearing about a crime committed by someone of a minority group. The crime is salient because it doesn’t happen every day (hopefully!). The criminal in the minority is salient because he or she is less common than a regular person in the majority. This is exactly why we have stereotypes. We are more affected by salient information than normal information causing us to make generalizations and assumptions that we believe, regardless of whether there is real evidence to support it.
When other very salient things like situations and emotions affect us at the same time, we create the same sort of automatic assumption that the two go together. Take driving as an example. When you are coasting along normally, driving is a rather neutral experience. But when you are inching along the motorway in stop-and-go traffic, you become frustrated. Being idle counts as unoccupied time. We feel unoccupied time more than occupied time. This gives us a misconception of how long we wait, and it’s one of the reasons why we hate waiting in lines. The stronger negative emotion makes the experience more salient.
Now let’s drill down a little deeper into the experience of waiting in line. When we see everyone waiting together, the whole experience is negative in an equal way. If it’s our line that starts moving, we rarely look around and say “haha! look at me!” We just proceed ahead and the experience becomes more neutral (less salient) to us. That means that our memory is less likely to cache that experience.
If we look around and notice that another line is moving, we feel worse because we want to be in that line. Instead of becoming more neutral, the experience becomes more negative (stronger) making it more likely to stay in our memories. If you’ve ever tried to switch lines and get stuck again, it becomes even more salient of an experience. It’s this saliency that creates the correlation in our minds.
Certainly, there are many factors that can contribute to actually slower lines, like a lazy cashier or someone paying by check. And personality traits like the aggressiveness of a driver can determine how efficiently someone usually moves through traffic. In places like stores, banks, or government offices, queue management systems can be implemented to improve a customer’s experience, sometimes with unexpected ideas. Elevators have mirrors as a way to improve customer satisfaction by reducing perceived waiting times. If you’re occupied checking your hair or shirt, you won’t feel like you’re waiting as long. Providing customer service up the queue is another way to reduce perceived and real wait times, like when ordering at Starbuck’s. The process of making a coffee starts up the line before the customer arrives at the register to pay, instead of waiting to get to the register and then waiting longer for the order. It’s a more efficient queue management that results in happier customers.
The universe is not out to get you
The most salient thing in the world is ourselves. We perceive everything from our points of view and our points of view only. That means that each of us feels like a situation or experience is happening to us, not simply with us, also known as the fundamental attribution error. Illusory correlation is just our brains relying on fewer, stronger experiences to create wide generalizations, even though those correlations are not necessarily true.
So the next time you’re waiting in line, it might make you feel a little better knowing that everyone else is thinking the same thing. And if you’re the lucky one in the fast line, or in a place with a solid queue system, take a second to notice and enjoy it. You just might start making a positive correlation instead.