Switching Lanes

Why we switch lines at the grocery store. It could be linked to people's tendency to compare themselves to those less fortunate -- those behind us in line.

By Marina Krakovsky, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on April 24, 2008

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.

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.