Last week, I returned to Six Flags’ Great America with my children and their friend. The kids had once again earned “free” passes by completing a reading program at school, and we felt compelled to go by the perceived “value” of only having to pay just $60 for my admission and another $60 for food. As with my visit last year, I thought about the cultural absurdities the park is peddling, as well as the amusement park’s role as a luxury destination for (what I perceived to be) low income families. But mostly, I thought about the lines. The ridiculous lines. The staring at the operators who moved like slowly rusting robots between rides, the inventory of garbage in the holding pools, and my constant threats of bodily harm to my sons if they didn’t keep their hands to themselves. But mostly, I thought of the work of the American philosopher poet, Tom Petty, and his major work “The Waiting.”
Tom Petty and his collaborators (Lynch, Campbell, and Tench, referred to herein as “The Heartbreakers”) assert in the chorus that waiting is “the hardest part.” But is it? For this, I turned to the abundant research on waiting. Did you know there was abundant research on this? I did, because I have unlimited access to the world’s 9th largest research library. Janakiraman, et al (2011) point out that the longer you wait in line, the more likely you are to focus on “forgone benefits of alternative activities, experience boredom, or suffer from heightened feelings of anxiety and stress.” In layman’s terms, I could be thinking about how punching myself in the face would be more exciting, counting the people in line I’d sleep with in a pinch, or helping my children envision a life free of electronic media if they don’t shut up. Maister (2005) describes a number of general propositions about waiting, including: occupied time feels shorter; uncertain, unexplained, and unfair waits seem longer; and waiting by yourself feels longer.
Whatever the reason you’re waiting, the hardest part is the psychological stress you endure, say, as your son only stops talking long enough to put his mouth on the guardrail recently touched by the 95% of people who don’t wash their hands correctly. According Janakiraman (2011) people don’t make rational decisions about waiting – stressing themselves out as they “balance two competing psychic forces: a growing disutility for waiting that induces a desire to abandon queues…versus a growing commitment to seeing waits through to their end as the time until likely conclusion shrinks.” Here, the authors are reasserting the paradox first described by Strummer, et al (1981) wherein one debates the merits of staying versus going based on the knowledge that persisting will result in trouble (n), while departure will increase said trouble exponentially (2n). Such indecision will bug you, and may inexplicably result in people yelling things in Spanish.
The waiting is also the hardest part because people are generally terrible at accounting for their time. Soman (2001) demonstrates that we’re more concerned about the time we piss away when we assign it a monetary value – though the argument is that this irrational since pissed away time is a sunk cost, just like the money you wasted on the new kitchen for that place in Las Vegas that you’re never going to be able to sell for what you paid. Speaking of irrationality, it’s apparently pretty easy to trick us into not realizing how long we’ve been waiting. In a relevant example to my own experience, Nie (2000) points out that people regularly endured a 90 minute wait for an 3 minute ride at Disney World because they were given some sort of treasure map to figure out while they waited. Dupes, right? Nie also points out that busy restaurants make sure to put menus in your hands fast so it feels like you’re being served, even when you aren’t. Mark van Hagen and his co-authors (2009) support this research: “infotainment” and blinky signs make people less upset about waiting around for trains and such. And these are Dutch people, who stand in line while wearing wooden shoes and eating hard pretzels.
Petty reminds us that “every day you see one more card/get one more yard. ” Thus, the illusion of progress is important to the perception of waiting. Again, Professor Nie’s finding support Petty’s instinctive assertions. “…If the line is arranged with a zigzag of five aisles, it does not seem hopelessly long.” What Petty calls getting one more yard, Nie calls “managing the perception of distance.” Apparently, theme park lines are arranged in long, twisting paths because it screws with our perceptions — furthered by the fact that you usually can’t see the end of the line, so that you can figure out just how long the line is. We’re being tricked all of the time. Thanks, Professor Nie, for point out that we’re so easily duped.
In the course of my research, I learned that there is one party for whom the waiting is not the hardest part: the operators of the amusement park. Reza Ahmadi (1997) includes the fascinating insight that people have a 12 ride “threshold value,” which is the number of rides they want to go on to feel as though they got their money’s worth. On a crowded day, people end up staying in the park longer to reach that threshold value. Ahmadi tells us that “operating profits are positively correlated with the duration of visitors’ in-park stay.” Longer waits for rides = more money for Six Flags. Which is good, because the rest of the company’s strategy is based mostly on being a little cheaper than Disney World.
But let us return again to the words of Tom Petty:
Well yeah i might have chased a couple women around
All it ever got me was down
Then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I’m feeling right now
Baby you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now
I believe that what Petty and the Heartbreakers are saying here is that though waiting is generally a negative experience, a positive conclusion makes it worthwhile. Again, Petty’s insight is supported by careful experimental design. Ahmadi (1997), states that “waiting may contribute to the experience…low waiting times tend to have a negative impact as well.” The implication is clear: just as Tom Petty would not feel as good as he feels having endured the wait for the right woman, all those people waiting in line for two hours to ride Goliath at Great America might have found the ride less thrilling if they hadn’t had time to let their anticipation build, and assigned value to the ride based on the visible demand for it. I think those people are nuts, because I don’t particularly enjoy roller coasters or anything that makes my stomach drop (I’ve passed out twice on airplanes, which is another story). Miller, et al (2007) find another time when long waits are beneficial: when you’re waiting for a negative experience. A longer wait time may help you develop a coping strategy – like, say, enduring the flume ride your sons want to go on so they can then go to the kiddie rides and you can stay on the ground. Ground that doesn’t whip, spin, drop, or turn upside down. I love the ground.
So, is waiting the hardest part? Standing in line at Great America, it certainly feels that way to me, but obviously not to everyone. America apparently loves waiting. Consider another important research finding: the average NFL broadcast is 174 minutes long. Can you guess how many minutes actually show action on the field? Eleven. In this way, amusement parks and football are exactly like porno movies: based on juvenile fantasies with dumb, tacked on plots, featuring dumb characters with inhuman physiques setting up for a quick climax. When it’s over, you feel some guilt for having wasted all that time. And you desperately need to wash your hands.*
*you know, because you ate all those Doritos watching the Superbowl.