multiple lines of people waiting at a grocery store

Bad Luck or Conspiracy in the Checkout Line

I am sure this will resonate with many of you, and you have probably thought about it from a HF perspective many times while waiting in the slowest checkout line in the store.

You run into the grocery store to quickly pick up one ingredient. You grab what you need and head to the front of the store. After quickly sizing up the check-out lines, you choose the one that looks fastest. You chose wrong.

Of course, we know that there are a variety of cognitive and perceptual phenomena involved. If there are three lines, you have a two in three chance of not being on the fastest one. When your line is going slower, you notice it more and feel irritated. When your line is going faster you don’t notice it at all. So the sum of your attention is negative. And if the third line is even slower, you never notice that. With more than three lines, the probabilities get worse.

Long serpentine lines are fairer than several separate shorter lines because it balances waiting time. But it just looks so darn long we perceived it as worse. We also prefer to maintain the sense of control that choosing a line gives us (the autonomy dimension in motivational theory). Except of course at places like Disney where they give you fun distractions while you wait or design the ropes course to make it feel like you are always moving.

What are your “waiting in line” horror stories? I have a feeling we can have fun with this one.

Image credit: “Waiting in line at a food store” by David Shankbone used under CC BY-SA 3.0

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