Waiting Sucks; Here's What You Can Do About It

Waiting sucks. New research shows that how long you had to do it in childhood makes you less patient now. But just knowing how long you have to wait may make it more bearable.

Slate's Timothy Noah writes about studies focusing on people whose last names start with letters toward the end of the alphabet, meaning that, in the words of write-in presidential candidate Tom Zych, they "spent many years in the back right hand corner of classrooms, at the ends of lines." Researchers Kurt A. Carlson and Jacqueline M. Conard found that when these end-of-liners grew up, they were quicker to respond to offers of free stuff, and quicker to volunteer for surveys that could earn them money. Given a hypothetical scenario in which a discounted product was only available for a limited time, the end-of-the-alphabet folks also were more likely to say they'd go out of their way to buy it. Basically, people who spent a lot of time waiting as kids are less likely to wait as grownups.

But while memories of childhood waiting may make today's wait more painful, some things can lessen the blow. According to New York Magazine, one of those things is knowing just how long the wait is going to take. Researchers have found that giving people this information — via, say, the countdown clocks now found in many New York subway stations — gives people a "sense of control" that creates "greater consumer satisfaction." Explains Jesse Bering, "For those providing the unpunctual service, this has a big upside: It means consumers are more likely to forgive a longer than a shorter wait, provided they are simply kept informed about how long the wait will be."

What this suggests is that what people hate even more than they hate waiting is uncertainty. And it makes sense — if you've ever tried to get a train late at night in one of those stations that doesn't have a fancy new countdown clock, you know the feeling of staring off into the abyss, wondering if you will ever, ever get out of there. Even a wait of fifteen minutes or more, if clearly demarcated, is better than such purgatory. So is there a way to turn our hatred of uncertainty to our advantage?

Noah notes that it's not clear whether end-of-the-alphabet people's itchier trigger fingers make them better or worse consumers — they might, for instance, snatch up deals while other people dilly-dally. And companies maximize uncertainty by making every deal sound like your last chance ever when it probably isn't. One way to combat this is to do a little price comparison on your own and know when different products are likely to go on sale, so you know how big a deal you're dealing with, and how likely it is to be the last of its kind. And if the only time pressure is coming from your own impatience, think about setting a time limit for waiting. If you set yourself, say, a one-day waiting period before buying something, you may be more able to deal with the wait than if you tell yourself to put it off indefinitely — and in that day, you may decide you don't need it anyway. Even if you do end up buying it, at least you exerted some control over your behavior — rather than just letting your last name make all the decisions.

Tyranny Of The Alphabet [Slate]
The Good Wait [NY Mag]

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