'Dr. Queue' Helps You Avoid Rage In Line

Each December, there are stories of holiday shoppers fighting over bargains and getting violent in parking lots. MIT Professor Dick Larson, also known as "Dr. Queue," talks about the psychology of waiting in line, and how to avoid "queue rage" this holiday season.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Many of us will head to the airport today or tomorrow, or out to the mall for the sales on Friday, and we'll be sure to encounter a lot of other people doing the same thing, which means, of course, waiting on a lot of long lines. Queuing up can be boring and annoying. MIT Professor Dick Larson says it can even lead to queue rage. Seriously.

Professor Larson has been dubbed Dr. Queue for the 30 years he spent studying the psychology of waiting on line. He's done experiments in banks and supermarkets and amusement parks, and works on ways to make that interminable wait seem shorter or even fun.

What do you do to make waiting on line more bearable? Tell us your line story. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dick Larson is a professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering at MIT, with us today from their studios in Cambridge. Dick, or should I say Dr. Queue, nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DICK LARSON (Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT): Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And queue rage, really?

Prof. LARSON: Well, it can happen. It can happen. First of all, can I ask you a question?

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. LARSON: Were you born in New York City?

CONAN: Well, no, but I lived in New York - in and around New York most of my life.

Prof. LARSON: Okay. Because only New Yorkers say standing on line. Everyone else in the country says standing in line.

CONAN: We're waiting for them to catch up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LARSON: Yeah, queue rage can happen particularly when it's a violation of first-come, first-serve or what people think is fairness. So that if there's - if somebody gets served before you but you've been standing in line longer than they have, that can lead to even violence in some cases.

CONAN: Really? I mean, I know that people - almost anything can trigger violence, it seems, in some people. But that seems, well, remarkably petty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LARSON: Do you want to know a case example, for instance?

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. LARSON: Yeah. There was a case of a - in Milwaukee, this is about nine or 10 years ago, where a woman had about a week's worth of family groceries and she was in, let's say, aisle 11 and - which is a regular aisle. But aisle 12 was empty and it was for express checkout�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LARSON: �only.

CONAN: Ten items or fewer, or whatever.

Prof. LARSON: Ten items or fewer, yeah. And she was beckoned over there by the server. He said, come on over here, I'll check out your $150, $200 worth of groceries because there's nobody here at the moment. And this woman who was standing in a longer line, it would have taken her a long time, so she goes over there, and guess what happens. Just a few minutes - just a few moments later, somebody with like six items shows up and gets furious because - they say, well, how can you be in this line? This is for 10 items or less. And a big ruckus occurs and shouting and screaming. Eventually, the woman with the week's worth of groceries leaves, the woman with six items quickly gets processed and leaves, follows the first one out in the parking lot, takes out a hunting knife and chops off half her nose.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh.

Prof. LARSON: Yeah. So that's an example of queue rage. And I have other examples in my files of people who pull guns on other people, in Florida, and stuff like that. So it really can happen.

CONAN: A lot of it, and I've just been reading some of your articles, but a lot of it seems to be connected where people you're in parallel lines and somebody else seems to be getting ahead faster.

Prof. LARSON: That's right. And it can happen in drugstores. It can happen in maybe a fast food restaurant. But a lot of these service industries over the past 20 years have invented what they call the single serpentine line. Wendy's invented it in the fast foods. A certain New York City bank invented it for banking. American Airlines takes credit for it in the airline industry.

And with a single serpentine line, you have this idea of enforced fairness because first-come, first-serve, and that's the way it works. And a lot of times, it isn't the actual duration of the wait that is so important to you. It's, psychologically, it's the stress that somebody who arrives after you may slip before you and get service before you get served. And that happens more frequently than you might think.

CONAN: That feeling of outrage, of this is unfair, and of course you've got plenty of time to let it stew.

Prof. LARSON: Right. Right. Right. So the person who slips in front of you, they might not even realize that they're a little bit out of turn because the store hasn't really taken this into consideration. But it might be something that you remember. And a lot of my students, I ask them about these things, and I say, well, has there been an event in your life - and these are students who are like 25 and younger, so they haven't, you know, been out that long - I say, has there an event in your life, in like in a retail establishment or a fast food or something that has been so outrageous in terms of queuing that you made a lifetime pledge never ever to go back there again? And more than half the class always raises their hand.

CONAN: Hmm. Really?

Prof. LARSON: I bet many of viewers - listeners, excuse me, have the - have a similar experience.

CONAN: They've vowed never to go back and, yet, stores have not really looked into this?

Prof. LARSON: Right. In fact, that's how I personally got involved with the psychology of queuing because I used to look only at the physics and the mathematics of queuing which is more traditional MIT engineering.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. LARSON: And I had an event like that which is so terrible, psychologically, I was mad three weeks after it happened, that I said, well, wait a minute. I'm an MIT faculty member. I'm not supposed to be so irrational. So maybe other people have feelings like this too, when they have these kinds of service encounters. And I wrote a research proposal to NSF and got funded on it, thank goodness.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You had to wait on line for that, I'm sure.

Prof. LARSON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LARSON: And then - did some serious research on this.

CONAN: NSF, of course, the National Science Foundation. We're talking with Dr. Queue, Dick Larson at MIT. 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. What do you do to make the wait, that interminable wait, seem a little bit shorter? Let's see if we can go to Tom(ph). Tom is with us from Long Island.

TOM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tom.

TOM: How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

TOM: When I'm on line, especially in an airport, I usually just strike up a conversation with somebody. They're in the same fix I am so we might as well pass the time doing something. And usually, you find out something really interesting about the person or you find that you have something in common. And before long, you know, you're at the front of the line and it's done. And I don't know, just sort of a habit - my wife and I both do it.

CONAN: So you turn this into an opportunity. And Dick Larson, that - a lot of people take that technique.

Prof. LARSON: I think that's a great thing to do. In fact, I would advocate that rather than pulling out your wireless device and checking your email. Have a human interaction.

CONAN: And, certainly, over pulling out your hunting knife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LARSON: In fact, there's a senior day in certain places in south Florida where - usually it's Wednesday that they announce a 10 percent discount for seniors in various places, various retail establishments. And I've been told that the seniors kind of get dressed up and view this as a social occasion because they do exactly what Tom suggested. They go and actually enjoy these lines because it's an opportunity to meet other seniors in their community.

CONAN: And Tom, it slipped right past me. Do you stand in line or on line?

TOM: Well, we're in line, I guess. Where I live, you have to get on a ferryboat to get there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: And sometimes, things get pretty testy on line, I guess you could say. People - they look a boat line and they wonder if they're going to get on it and people get - they bust in the line and then sometimes there's, you know, words exchanged. And that can be entertaining at times, as well.

CONAN: I bet, Tom. Well, thanks very much.

TOM: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye, bye. Here's a couple of emails that we have. This is from Jim(ph): bring something to read wherever you go. Good for your mind and makes the queue feel shorter. That's a good piece of advice. And newspapers are good for that, too.

And this is from Nicole(ph) in Boise: I know it seems silly but just swaying back and forth in line really keeps me calm. Someone told me this when my kids were very little and it does work. Try to put it in perspective and not be in a rush also helps. So, the philosophical approach there.

Prof. LARSON: That's a new one for me. That's a great idea. I'll try it next time.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next - to Britney(ph). Britney calling from San Francisco.

BRITNEY (Caller): Yes. Immediately, when I heard this topic I thought of a time when I was a senior in high school. We did a trip that a lot of seniors do here in California where everyone goes and stays all night in Disneyland. And, of course, the lines in Disneyland are notoriously long. And it's even worst when there's just loads of high school seniors everywhere. So what my friends and I ended up doing is using the camera we had with us to take silly pictures and we were in line for about 45 minutes. And in the end, taking all those silly pictures ended up being more fun than the ride itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sorry you didn't enjoy the Matterhorn or whatever else you were (unintelligible)

BRITNEY: It was the Haunted House ride where you appear to be going down an elevator when you're actually not. So it was kind of a young ride anyway, but yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, it's interesting - Britney, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BRITNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: You write that, in fact, Disney is one of the great engineers of the modern line.

Prof. LARSON: They are. I think Disneyland in Anaheim opened around 1955 or so, is that right? And�

CONAN: I think so. Yeah.

Prof. LARSON: Yeah. And I view that as the birth year of the psychology of queuing. The mathematics of queuing goes back to about 1910 or so. And the Disney Company has really been superb at figuring out how to distract people -maybe not Britney and her friends - but a lot of people. So they - if they -let's say they're going to join a line that's going to be 45 minutes, well, oftentimes Disney will have a sign out that says, if the line is out to here, it will be - anticipate a 60-minute wait. And whereas Disney knows there will be a 45-minute wait. And then, when you get there you look at your watch - this is one reason I don't wear a watch myself�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LARSON: And the father and mother can say to the kids, hey, look, we're 15 minutes ahead of schedule. So instead of, you know, thinking that, oh, I just spent 45 minutes in a line, you are�

CONAN: You saved 15 minutes.

Prof. LARSON: You saved 15 minutes. Your expectation was 60 minutes, it only took 45 minutes. And usually, in that line channel, you have all kinds of distractions and pictures and amusements that you actually think the amusement has already started.

CONAN: They do that - they've incorporated that at Universal and some of the other amusement parks, too. So�

Prof. LARSON: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: �if they're ready to steal any ideas that work. Let's talk with Spencer(ph). Spencer with us from Salt Lake City.

SPENCER (Caller): Hi. So I was in France, at Disneyland in Paris. And I�

CONAN: Euro Disney�

SPENCER: We go to Disneyland in California all the time. And there this huge difference in how people in Disneyland Paris waited in line. They would -anytime the line would expand where more than one person was standing, they would - slip around you. They would get in front of you, and all of sudden the people who are three behind us were in front of us. And they didn't seem to have any problem with it. And this happened at the Eiffel Tower as well. And in America, I just can't imagine anybody thinking they could slip around you in a line�

CONAN: And live.

SPENCER: �without getting (unintelligible).

CONAN: Yeah. And - yeah. I lived in England for quite awhile and they have great respect for queues in England.

SPENCER: Mm-hmm. Well, I should go there then when they get a Disneyland.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Or Tokyo, Shanghai or, wherever they're going to built the next one.

SPENCER: Sure. Sure.

CONAN: Have you had that experience, Dick?

Prof. LARSON: Yeah. I think Spencer noticed something very interesting and -what we've seen is that the behavior of people in a queue is like a microcosm of the broader society from which these people are brought. And you say that in England, they're very first come, first served. I love queuing in British because the second E is there. It's Q-U-E-U-E-I-N-G. And it's the only word that I know that has five vowels in a row, so that's the way I spell it here.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LARSON: Even though Microsoft doesn't like it. But it Britain, as you say, they'll be first come, first serve. And in Washington, D.C., the government workers queue up on the sidewalk, waiting for their bus, first come, first serve at 4 o'clock in the afternoon or 4:30 or whatever. But if you get down in Europe, as you get closer to the Mediterranean, it's more of survival of the fittest and lack of attention to first come, first serve. And sometimes, this could lead to queue rage when you have this clash of cultures at the same place.

For instance, ski lift lines in Switzerland, where you get people from southern Europe and northern Europe standing in the same line. Half of them think first come, first serve is the only way, and the other half think, oh, wherever I can squeeze in, that's where I'm going to squeeze in. And that could cause a lot of difficulty.

Prof. LARSON: We're talking with Dr. Queue, Dick Larson, a professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering at MIT. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Lauryn(ph). Lauryn with us from Portland in Oregon.

LAURYN (Caller): Hi. I have little kids and I wait in a lot of lines. And I always have my knitting with me. I have a ball of yarn in my pocket or my purse and I knit in line.

CONAN: You knit in line. And that seems like a, well, you know, easy, portable thing to do.

LAURYN: It is and I don't get as sucked in as I do to a book or a magazine, where I lose track of where the line is going.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

LAURYN: So it's easier to knit and pay attention to my surroundings.

CONAN: All right, there's an idea. Do you find knitting works, Dick Larson?

Prof. LARSON: Well, I have to say I haven't tried it myself, but I do know some women who - including some top executives at IBM and other places - who even in board meetings will do knitting. So maybe that's how to be not bored at a board meeting is to do some knitting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Lauryn.

LAURYN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sally(ph). At a busy restaurant in Marlborough, they had hired a mime to entertain the people waiting. We were eating and watched the mime remove a hairpiece off the head of a waiting man without his even knowing it. This man was gracious about it but everyone in line and those of us who could see the line were all entertained, and no one seemed to mind waiting. Well, maybe it was just a set up. It's possible.

Prof. LARSON: I hope it was a set up.

CONAN: Well, in other words, in other contexts, it's called a pickpocket. Anyway, this is from Bruce(ph): while trying to get counter service at a Chinese bakery, other customers kept pushing past me. I was already told this is a cultural thing. Not all societies form lines. So that would fall into that same category.

Prof. LARSON: That's right. The lines in China are non-existent in many places.

CONAN: Let's see if we if we can go next to Dan(ph). Dan with us from San Diego.

DAN (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I was wondering - I'm a traffic engineer, and a lot of the times we talk about queuing in traffic. I was wondering if your guest research expanded into waiting in line in a car?

CONAN: Uh-huh. Could they get that serpentine line before the toll booth? That's what I want to know, anyway.

DAN: That would be nice.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. LARSON: Well, some back-of-the-envelope calculations we've done suggest that commuters who commute in their cars for most of their professional lives probably spend more time in those lines than all the other lines where they're physically standing. Because if you commute in rush hour, the traffic congestion and the delays can cause 20, 30, 40, 60 minutes of delays. And if you add that up over a 30 or 40-year career, that could actually be one or two waking years of your life.

The other thing is with - in traffic, the queue rage can convert to road rage, where - suppose you have two lanes that are merging. And, you know, the unwritten rule is alternate feed, first the right, then the left, then the right and the left. And if somebody tries to sneak in like we heard from a previous caller, that can lead to road rage and often - sometimes violence.

CONAN: Well, Dan, good luck.

DAN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right Bye-bye. Let's see if we could go - we can get one more in. This is Chris(ph). Chris in Salem, Oregon.

CHRIS: Hi. I just wanted to say two things. The first thing is in line, normally anyone in my generation, we've got our iPhones or Droidz or Google-powered phones, and we're just doing our Facebooks and, you know, just checking, so it doesn't seem like much of a wait for us. And the second thing is that I do in line is, well, wait. I - we're a nation and country of just running around, picking up the kids, dropping off the kids, going to work back and forth, and just rush, rush, rush. And that five minutes in the line right there, just standing there might be your most calm moment of your day.

CONAN: So, use it for a little meditation or - probably can't get all the way in, but at least use the opportunity. Chris, thanks very much. Appreciate it. And Dick Larson, thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. LARSON: Well, thank you, Neal. And I wish all your listeners a very happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And you, too. Dick Larson is a professor at MIT and studies the psychology and science of waiting in line. He joined us from the studios at MIT.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.