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The tense crowding and jostling while waiting in line at the bank, movie theater or supermarket have long become one of the trademarks of Israeliness. A new study conducted by the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa suggests why Israelis hate standing in line and, when there is no alternative, which type of line they prefer.

The study provides the first scientific analysis of the Israeli urge to maneuver, circumvent and become annoyed with the person behind the counter and the others waiting in line.

Not surprisingly, the study indicates that Israelis prefer a single-file line or a line in which each person receives a number, rather than several lines that merge into a single line.

The authors of the study, Prof. Anat Rafaeli, Efrat Kedmi and Greg Brown from the Industrial Engineering and Management faculty at the Technion, focused on the psychological aspects of waiting in line. Other studies in the area have examined this phenomenon but from an economic perspective.

This latest study involved two experiments in which 500 people participated. In the first experiment, this sample group was asked which type of line they prefer. Most of the participants said that they prefer a line in which everyone receives a number that determines the order of service. This finding surprised the researchers, because the respondents had also said that this type of "numbered" line is particularly slow.

A large percentage of the respondents said they prefer a guided "snake" path winding back and forth toward the destination to an unordered series of lines converging toward a single service provider. The "snake" line provides a feeling that one is advancing in the line and that progress is being made in a "fair" way.

The second part of the study used computer software that simulates standing in different types of lines. The participants were asked to sit in front of the screen and watch various images of people waiting in different types of lines. During a 12-minute viewing period, the participants were twice asked how they felt and whether they experienced anxiety. The greatest levels of anxiety were reported in the case of multiple lines that converge into a single line - even if the waiting time and "fairness" of service were equal to the other types of lines.

When the person behind the counter provided service to someone who cuts in line, the level of reported anxiety rose. The closer this disruption was to the person being questioned in the experiment, the greater the level of anxiety and desire to complain about "unfairness." The researchers concluded from this that a single line creates a type of "psychological agreement of fairness" between those waiting in line and any violation of this accord generates anxiety.

It was also found that if those waiting in line are provided reading material or kept occupied by filling in forms, they tend to feel less anxious.

The researchers also concluded from the study that Israelis believe it would be fair to charge money for access to a shorter line, and that this assessment of fairness was shared by both those who said they would be prepared to pay for this shorter waiting time and those who said they would prefer to save the expense and wait longer.

Prof. Rafaeli contends that organizations should be more attune to the feelings of those waiting in line for their services. "They are not aware of the harm caused by negative attitudes of consumers who are unhappy with the long waiting time... They might lose customers that they could otherwise have retained had they devoted some thought to the issue of managing lines in their organization."