You know what it’s like - you’re standing in a queue in the supermarket, and can’t stop looking at the other queue. It’s moving faster than yours. You’re not sure whether to move queues or not, but every time you look at it it seems to be snaking forward, while your one is completely still. So you do it. You leave your queue and join the other one, which immediately grinds to a complete halt. You curse as you watch two people who would’ve been behind you in your old queue get served before you do, before walking home miserable, having waited in line for 15 minutes to buy a single roll of toilet paper and a packet of gum.
You might have thought it a 50/50 gamble as to whether you should’ve jumped ship to the lush, green pastures of the neighbouring queue, but it isn’t. New research shows that actually, it’s always better to stay out, as tempting as it may be to gamble.
A study at Harvard Business School has determined that we make very poor decisions when we’re at the back of a line, out of some intrinsic desire to not be at the end. It’s known as ‘last place aversion’ and can really end up shooting us in the foot.
We’re twice as likely to change queues, and four times as likely to sack the whole thing off and go home empty-handed if there’s nobody behind us - our position in the queue we’re in has more bearing on the decision than the actual speed of the other queue.
“When we join a queue, we tend to make the most rational choice we can, which usually means joining the shortest queue. But if we see a line moving faster, we might switch without having enough extra information, and we can often get it wrong,” writes researcher Ryan Buell in the study.
He suggests that, when in such a situation, we really need to look closely at whether the other queue is moving faster or we just feel rubbish because we’re stuck at the back like suckers.
Next time you’re there, nervously stepping from side to side as you look angrily at the people in front of you and jealously at the carefree shoppers in the other line, try to pretend there are people behind you to lessen the panic caused by being at the back. Supposedly the anxiety caused by being in last place is at its strongest at the very start, so letting that fade (or letting someone else join the line and become the sucker at the back) will help.
Or, you know, start keeping more toilet paper in the house.