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Why You Think You Always End Up in the Slow Line

Updated on June 10, 2014
The woes of living life in the slow lane!
The woes of living life in the slow lane!

Life in the Slow Lane

You may recall having had the following internal conversation at some point during your driving history, perhaps including a few curse words here and there...

'I am sooo late to work; I need to get there in 5 minutes, but I'm still 15 minutes away...this traffic is terrible, so many bad, this lane I'm in is sooo slow!'

'Hey, the one next to me is actually moving faster, what the hell? Let me try switching into that lane...indicator on...BAM! Muhahahaaaa, managed to squeeze right in front of that driver...YESSS! Crap, they're beeping and cursing at me now...whatever, I had to do what I had to do, ok?!'

'Nooo this new lane just stopped moving too, seriously?? And now cars are flying by me in the lane I was just in - REALLY??!!'

'This always happens to me! Fine, I'll just squeeze back into the lane I was just in. I'm soo late now, awesome! But...yessss, managed to switch lanes again, HAH!'

'Wait a minute, everyone is slamming on their breaks in front of me, but cars are flying by me in the other lane AGAIN!! SERIOUSLY?! I CAN'T WIN, NO MATTER WHICH LANE I CHOOSE!!!'

Sound all too familiar? I know each one of you has been there before, don't even pretend that you haven't!

Brake frustrating!
Brake frustrating!

The other day when this was happening, and I kept switching in and out of lanes, slamming on my breaks, getting mad that the lane I just moved out of was moving faster than the one I moved into, I had a thought - why does this happen? Why, no matter which lane I choose to get into, whether it be while driving to and from work or while attempting to check out at the grocery store, do I ALWAYS END UP IN THE SLOW LANE? There must be a reason for it, and I was determined to figure it out, once and for all.

So, I relied on the trusty, omniscient, mystical Google search box by starting to type in, "why is the other line..." and up popped the search suggestion, "why is the other line always faster"...I guess many people out there have Googled the same question. Shocker.

I ended up finding some interesting sources speaking to this exact dilemma, which I decided would help make for an interesting blog post, so here goes...

Apparently, there are a few things happening here, when you are screaming inside your head, "WHY IS THE OTHER LINE ALWAYS FASTER???!!"

1) The probability determined by the queuing theory,

2) The illusory correlation and universe-victim theory, and

3) The unoccupied-grueling boredom concept

The omniscient Google search
The omniscient Google search

The Queuing Theory

Bill Hammack, the Engineer Guy, explains in his interesting video, the Queuing theory, which originated from an engineer's study of telephone trunk lines in 1909. The issue was that the telephone company had to determine how many "trunk lines" or circuits, were needed to adequately service a town's phone calls. The engineer determined the most efficient way to handle calls at a telephone company so that only the minimal amount of people, a mere one percent, would experience a blocked call - not by taking the average rate of calls per hour, but surprisingly take both the average number of calls in an hour and the average call duration to determine how many lines would be needed to handle the amount of calls most efficiently.

"How many trunk lines should we utilize to operate most efficiently?"
"How many trunk lines should we utilize to operate most efficiently?"
Single-filed line? Nooooo!!!
Single-filed line? Nooooo!!!

The trunk lines the engineer studied are much like the shopping lines and driving lanes that we encounter today, so you can see where the Engineer Guy is going with this. To determine the most efficient way to handle customers so that they wait the least amount of time, or to open enough driving lanes at any point in the day so that the least amount of traffic builds up, the average amount of customers or drivers per hour cannot be applied to come up with the solution. The actual solution would be to account for the randomness at which a line can be delayed at any time, and have one "combined queue" that feeds into multiple lanes/registers so that any hold up at any register or lane does not stop the rest of the combined queue from continuing to move. But is that really possible, to utilize a combined queue in situations like a shopping line - I mean, it is done in some situations, don't get me wrong - but it cannot be applied to all situations in reality, due to the psychological perception it would create with people having to wait in lengthly, single-filed lines.

The Universe-Victim Theory

The universe-victim theory explained by BBC Future, is about how we tend to think we are the center of the universe, and that everything that we experience in this world is directly associated with ourselves in some way. In other words, when it comes to being in a slow line, we tend to relate the fact that the line is slow due to the fact that we must be experiencing bad luck. Furthermore, we tend to remember these moments more so than the times we happen to be in a fast lane. On the other hand, when we are in fast lines for the majority of the time, we do not experience the need to relate the fact that we are in a fast lane to ourselves and how we must be experiencing good luck, because we think nothing of it. On top of all of this exists, as BBC Future states, "...a mind that over-exaggerates our own importance, giving each of us the false impression that we are more important in how events work out than we really are".

The universe is against me!
The universe is against me!

Unoccupied-Grueling Boredom Concept

The unoccupied-grueling boredom concept relates to the fact that the length of lines are more noticeable when you have nothing to distract you from the fact that you are waiting in line. Thus, the wait time and line may seem longer than they really are. According to Thorin Klosowski of Lifehacker, "research suggests that people overestimate how long they've waited in a line by 36 percent. Those estimates are often based on expectation".

Which leads to the fact that our expectations and perception come into play here as well - if we are told from the start that the line will take a certain amount of time, much like lines for rides at theme parks display the wait time up front, we are more likely to remain patient and understanding of the line's length. However, if we have no idea how long the line should take, we perceive the line to be longer than it really is, because our expectations were not set up front.

Theme Park lines tend to set the wait time expectation up front.
Theme Park lines tend to set the wait time expectation up front.
The psychology of waiting in line
The psychology of waiting in line

New York times quotes the expert on lines, M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, with, "Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself". They prove this fact through the concept that, when presented with a short line that is moving slow and a long line that is moving quickly, the average person will choose the shorter line, because they perceive the length of the line as indicative of its associated wait time. The lines had the same exact wait time in this analogy. The New York Times states, "This is why Disney hides the lengths of its lines by wrapping them around buildings and using serpentine queues".

So what can we learn from all of this?

1) that perhaps lines are not designed as efficiently as they can be to produce the shortest possible wait lines, due to the perception of a combined queue as being too long of a wait to most humans;

2) that we are all subject to being victims of a situation, and thus feel we are always experiencing bad luck the few times we have to wait in a long line, versus the majority of times we have waited in a quickly moving line;

3) and that longer wait times are going to be more apparent to us when we are unoccupied while waiting, and not presented with expectations up front concerning the wait time to be expected.

We need to all just calm down and breathe the next time we are waiting in that long line, running late for work (when we should have just left that much earlier instead), distract ourselves with the world buzzing on around us, and realize we cannot do anything about the current situation while remembering all the moments we have been lucky in the past.

Sure, I will remember that next time I am switching lanes back and forth, not feeling like I have moved an inch in ten minutes, allowing crazy thoughts to run rampant inside my mind. Riiiiggggghhhhht : )

Do you think you are mostly lucky when it comes to waiting in lines?

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    • Mandy Lee 26 profile image

      Amanda Oneal 3 years ago from St. Petersburg, Florida

      Thanks for the comment FlourishAnyway! Yes, I am not surprised about the Harry Potter ride situation, but they could have made the wait more bearable in some way.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This was very interesting. When the Harry Potter rides opened a few years ago, it was amazing how there was a line in order to wait in line, then when you got to the end they told you when your reserved time was. Talk about setting expectations. But everyone did it, of course.