It’s not just you – checkout queues in the supermarket and elsewhere always seem to move faster if you’re not in them. Why is this so?
The new book “Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?” by David Andrews probes into the history and psychology of queuing and attempts to answer the age-old question of why people appear to often choose slower lines: it’s because they only notice how fast the other queues are when theirs is moving slowly.
“Our minds are rigged against us,” writes Andrews in his book, noting that someone does not readily recognize the fact that he or she is in the fastest line because the mind is focused on unloading stuff and paying at the counter.
“Regardless of time actually spent, the slowest line will always be the one you are standing in,” Andrews adds.
To be published in December, the book also pinpoints the greater chance of being stuck in a slower line due to mere probability: if there are three queues and you choose the middle one, you only have one in three chances – versus two in three – that yours will be the fastest.
The queue in history
Andrews provides various historical references to the phenomenon of queuing, including how looters patiently took turns stealing from stores during the 2011 London riots. Andrews, however, says that Britons are not consistently a nation of patient, civilized queuers, contrary to what may be popularly thought.
"Queues were in fact often tense and politically charged affairs that had to be policed in case of riots," explains Andrews, pertaining to propaganda during World War II, a time of rationing and overall supply shortages.
The 33-year-old writer, whose interest in queues stems from his time in the U.S. Navy as well as his childhood in post-communist Romania in the 1990s, notes that the United States was not always a country of line standers.
He says that agrarian-based societies - before becoming cities - have little use for lines. While the early years of cityhood are marked by chaos, order is established at some point, and Americans were gradually trained for queuing as early as their toddler years.
Andrews deems queues as important “to the machinery of modern life,” tracing the practice to revolutionary France and arriving in British shores around 1837.
So how does one pick the best queue? Here are some tips:
- Pick one populated mostly by men who are less patient than women and more likely to give up and leave.
- Go to the left, as most people are right-handed and are naturally inclined to turn that way.
- Avoid the express lane at the checkout counter! Speed is determined by the number of individuals ahead of you and not the number of items being bought.
- Go to cash-only lanes, which research shows are the quickest.
- Avoid overthinking – just join the queue with the least number of shoppers in it.
Photo: Xiaojun Deng | Flickr