The Five Minute Wait

How long you wait is not entirely up to you

Posted Feb 11, 2013

If you are anything like me you probably get a little impatient when you are forced to wait. It doesn't really matter if it is waiting for the doctor, waiting in traffic, or waiting for a friend to show up. Waiting feels like a waste of time. It is a period of fallow time that could otherwise be used to engage in a more entertaining or rewarding activity. This is particularly frustrating when there seems to be a ready alternative. Researcher Barry Schwartz, who studies decision making, quips, "People don't mind waiting in line, as long as there is only one line. As soon as there are two lines, people try to jump back and forth and get frustrated when the other line moves more quickly." You can see this psychological phenomenon play out every day in rush hour traffic or when you wait in line for security at the airport.

It turns out that there is a psychology of waiting. Researchers have long known, for example, that socio-economic status factors in to the waiting game. Low status individuals, for instance, are expected to and expect to wait longer for high status individuals rather than the other way around. A student, by way of example, is more likely to stick around for ten minutes in front of their professor's office door than the professor is to wait on a student who is running late.

Some of waiting is cultural as well. It turns out that people will wait for a friend based on their own local cultural understanding of time. Psychologist Robert Levine-author of the wonderful book, Geography of Time- noted in his travels how people from the Middle East appeared to construe time differently from Americans. Americans think of time in five minute intervals, according to Levine. The Middle Eastern equivalent is the fifteen minute interval. What this means, in the real world, is that Americans who wait on a friend for five minutes (one interval) and Middle Easterners who wait fifteen minutes (one interval) are actually waiting the same amount of time!

This phenomenon isbacked up by recent research by Lawrence White. He had people study a complex diagram for exactly 47 seconds and then estimate the amount of time that had passed. Americans were likely to give estimates in 5 second increments (e.g. 65 or 70 seconds) while Estonians and Moroccans were like to give answers in 15 second increments (60 or 75 seconds).

If you want to do a little "time travel" to play with your experience of the day try dividing your hours--especially your work hours--into fifteen minute increments instead of ticking off the usual five. Try to experience the day, even a single day, through the fifteen minute increment approach and see how this affects you. Do you experience the day as more or less rushed? More or less full?