Switching Lanes

You've been waiting in line and your patience is running thin. Should you stick it out, or not? When Rongrong Zhou, a marketing professor, faced this decision while waiting at a bank, she looked at the people behind her and decided to stay in the line. Odd, she thought, since only the number ahead would affect how soon she'd be served.

So she and fellow marketing professor Dilip Soman, both of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, tested their hunch that queuing consumers compare themselves with those waiting behind them.

In one study, the researchers observed people waiting to use a busy ATM. They found that, controlling for the number of people ahead, the higher the number of people behind the subject, the less likely he or she was to leave the line.

Might customers simply be using the number behind them to estimate the cost of returning to the line later? To control for this possibility, the researchers ran an experiment in which coming back to the line after leaving it was not an option. In this study, subjects had to imagine themselves waiting in a post office. Researchers gave them information about the number of people ahead and the number behind, assessed subjects' feelings and asked them to choose between staying put and paying a fee to skip to the front. They found that the higher the number of people behind the subject, the higher her positive feelings—and the more likely she'll stay in line.

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Zhou and Soman attribute these results to the known tendency of people to make "downward" comparisons—to those less fortunate than they—when they're feeling anxious about their current status. Thus, a waiting consumer may seek comfort through comparisons with the unlucky folks behind her. Their study appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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