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Psychology of Waiting

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Let's face it; nobody enjoys waiting. Be it at the doctor's office, when an app is loading, when a payment is getting processed, or amid the frustration of a delayed flight at the airport, waiting often feels like an eternity. If you've ever dealt with products or processes, you know how every extra second of wait can cause frustration and lead to drastic drop in metrics. When Google experimented increasing the number of displayed search results from 10 to 30, increasing the loading time by half a second, with traffic and revenue down about 20%! Amazon found that for every 100ms extra loading time, they lost a turnover of 1%.

It’s not all bleak. The good news is, when tech can’t speed things up, we can use insights from behavioural economics to make the wait times more bearable. In this blog post, we will dive deep into the psychology of waiting and explore how to make wait times bearable.

Human perception of time and waiting. The last few minutes of a boring lecture seem to drag on endlessly, whereas the last days of a vacation flies by!

The human perception of time is starkly different from objective reality. This is why a vacation may seem to fly by, while the last few minutes of a boring lecture drag on endlessly.

The same principle applies to wait times. We have no objective sense of how long we had to wait but rather draw conclusions based on a multitude of heuristics.

Consider this scenario: You're in an elevator with no view, traveling 20 floors up. The ride takes one minute. However, without any distractions, it feels like an eternity. You’re asked how long it took - you guess 3 minutes. Now, imagine a well-lit mirror in the elevator. You adjust your outfit, fix your hair, and and viola! You’ve arrived. Much better right? You’re now again asked how long the lift ride took - you guess 30 seconds.

The perception of time is different in an elevator with or without a mirror
The perception of time is different when we are bored vs when we're entertained

It’s all in the mind - which is why using behavioural economics, you can make the wait time feel significantly shorter and more pleasant for your users! Here are 5 ways for you to do that.

1. Reduce the Uncertainty

Not knowing how long the wait will be makes the wait feel even longer. Uncertainty amplifies the discomfort of waiting. To reduce uncertainty, it's essential to provide accurate and transparent information about how long they'll be waiting. This can be either by letting the user know an estimate of the approximate wait time or even just their position in the queue!

If you’ve ever used any ride-sharing or food delivery apps like Uber, Lyft, Swiggy or Doordash, you would have noticed that they reduce users’ anxiety and unpleasant waiting by providing real-time location and estimated arrival time updates for drivers.

Screenshots of various delivery and ride sharing apps showing the wait time clearly
Screenshots of various delivery and ride sharing apps showing the wait time clearly

2. Use behaviourally-optimised designs

The design of the waiting area and queue can significantly shape the waiting experience. Research suggests that a single, lengthy line can be more frustrating than multiple, shorter lines or snakelike (serpentine) queues. People often fixate on the length of the line more than its speed. Given the choice between a long line that moves quickly and a short line that moves slowly, we often opt for the latter, even if the waits are identical. (link) This is why places like Disney and other theme parks often employ tactics to conceal the actual length of queues by wrapping them around buildings and using serpentine queues.

If a queue can be designed in such a way that the user doesn’t even realise they’re queuing, isn’t that as good as it can get? For instance, at Houston Airport, passengers used to grumble and complain about the baggage claim wait time. Executives realised that passengers reached the baggage carousel in just a minute, while bags took around seven minutes to arrive. Their clever solution was to move the gates farther away, increasing passenger transit time by about six times. Well, no one was complaining about the wait time anymore! The design considerations don't stop at queues alone; the overall design of the waiting area, including factors like colour, temperature, lighting, furniture, and even music, can significantly impact our waiting experience. (link)

Houston airport luggage handling before and after increasing the distance between the gates and the luggage belt.
Houston airport luggage handling before and after increasing the distance between the gates and the luggage belt.

3. Keep them Occupied

People perceive waits as shorter when they are engaged or occupied. Conversely, if there's nothing to do, time appears to drag on. Provide distractions or entertainment to occupy people during their wait! This is why the mirror made the elevator ride feels shorter. Airports stock shops, restaurants, and entertainment options to keep travellers engaged while they wait for their flights. Similarly, serving a bowl of crisps or nachos while customers wait for their food - it goes a long way! The dino game on chrome when your internet is down - amazing hack! Even the little things, like the dino game that pops up in Chrome when the internet is down, can make the wait more bearable.

The famous Chrome Dino game
The famous Chrome Dino game

My personal favourite - when you open the Zomato app and the page is loading, they provide a shimmering, quirky quote to keep you entertained during that 1-3 second wait. In fact, sometimes when it loads too quickly, I find myself strangely frustrated by its efficiency. Hey, I was in the middle of something!

Screenshot compilation of Zomato's loading pages
Screenshots of Zomato's loading pages

To keep your users occupied, one good strategy is to get them started while they wait. For example, asking customers to unload their shopping carts while there are people ahead in line, provide menu cards to look at while waiting to be served, or asking travellers to fill out immigration form while waiting in the immigration queue can all be very effective.

4. Explain Why They Need to Wait

Transparency is key. Inform customers why they're in a queue and provide context for their wait. Explaining the reason behind the wait can help reduce frustration and increase patience.

Consider the difference between hearing "Your flight is delayed by 30 minutes" and "Your flight is delayed by 30 minutes because the incoming flight from Bangalore was delayed due to rain." Research shows that the latter would be more agreeable to more people. This principle is rooted in the "because" effect, a concept that Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer tested in 1978. Langer's study found that simply adding "because" to a request significantly increased compliance - even when the reason didn't really make sense!

So, just giving a reason… ANY reason… is better than no reason.

5. Craft an Emotional Journey

Emotional elements can significantly impact the perception of waiting. According to the peak-end theory, the most intense moments and the way an experience concludes significantly influence how it's remembered. Ensure that positive moments punctuate the wait, and strive for a high note at the end of the process.

For instance, picture this scenario: You wait for 20 minutes at an expensive restaurant despite having a reservation. You’re quite annoyed! Finally, as you’re getting seated, the chef walks over to your table and says “So sorry you had to wait - today's dessert is on the house”. Instantly, your frustration melts away, and the next time you discuss this restaurant with friends, you eagerly recount the delightful surprise of receiving a complimentary dessert.

Waiting is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn't have to be an unpleasant one. We hope the art of making wait times more pleasant is no longer a mystery to you! With Behavioural Science-inspired techniques mentioned above, you should be able to significantly enhance the waiting experience of your users, or even for yourself.

Always remember, a little empathy and human-ising your processes and products can go a long way!

We would love to know how you plan to use these strategies and if you have more interesting anecdotes to add! Do interact; we respond to every comment.


This article was contributed by Junofy Anto Rozarina.

Junofy is a renowned Behavioural Scientist who serves as the CEO of Beyond Nudge, a global behavioural science consultancy company. She is also the founder and CEO of India Behavioural Economics Network (IBEN) and sits on expert boards of various organisations. She’s a seasoned practitioner, researcher and public speaker with a strong passion for deciphering the intricacies of human cognition and decision-making processes. Over the years, she has worked with several organisations including Google, Swiggy, UNICEF and UNDP, and has delivered lectures at forums, universities and organisations around the globe.

October 2023

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Wonderful blog. I'm interested in learning behavioral science now.



I've honestly been looking forward to Junofy writing more I'm so happy to see this 😊


Ulhas Abraham
Ulhas Abraham

This is really interesting. I've always wondered why passengers immediately get up from their seats as soon as a plane lands. Is everyone in a hurry or does the act of standing up from their seats makes them feel like the deplaning time will be reduced somehow? 🤔

Junofy Rozarina
Junofy Rozarina

Really good question! So, I would majorly assign this behaviour to what we typically call ‘action bias’ where people prefer doing something rather than do nothing, even if doing something doesn’t make life any better.



Very interesting!

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