The Art of Waiting

The Slow Elevator

Have you ever heard of the slow elevator story? In one version, the slow elevator is inside a hotel whereas in other versions, it is inside an office or an apartment building. Yet regardless whether the story involves people traveling and/or vacationing, going to work, or returning home, they all involve complaints about a slow elevator.

The elevator was slow enough such that it got hotel guests complaining to hotel management and tenants threatening to break their residential or commercial leases. What would you do to fix the problem? Do solutions like replacing the elevator entirely, installing a newer, stronger motor, or upgrading the system that runs the elevator cross your mind?

It turns out, management did none of the above and just did one thing. The one thing dropped complaints to a near zero.

The Mirror Solution

In the purported story, the management solved the frustrations of waiting by putting up mirrors next to the elevator. Wait… What?

It turns out, rather than actually speeding up the elevator, the management just needed to distract people. Yes, people do not like to wait, but they can be appeased without needing to reduce the wait time. By putting up the mirrors, management was able to make people’s wait more “pleasant” and “entertaining.” I found it incredibly amusing that this simple remedy worked so effectively—apparently checking yourself out in the mirror is enough of a delightful distraction for people to lose track of their wait time.

The Psychology of Queuing

Apparently, I am not the only one who found this fascinating. There is a whole slew of research on the the theory of queuing (or waiting) and numerous businesses who want “in” on such knowledge. The general consensus is that how people feel when they wait in line often matters a lot more than the duration of the wait.

Waiting can be quite the experience. People who are tired of waiting can switch from one line to another (aka “jockeying”), abandon the line, (aka “reneging”), or choose not to get in the line from the get-go (aka “balking”).

Here’s a fun video that captures one of the many faces of waiting or queueing.

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