Feature Stories

03.01.2018

How Long Did I Wait? Understanding Consumers’ Wait Duration Judgments

By Hong Jiewen and Zhou Rongrong, Associate Professors, Department of Marketing, HKUST Business School

Consumers often have to wait to acquire products or services (e.g., wait in line to check out at supermarkets or queue up to withdraw money from an ATM). It has been shown that consumers typically perceive these waiting experiences negatively and that longer waits contribute to lower customer satisfaction. In this research, we aim to gain a better understanding of how consumers perceive the length of a wait.

Imagine you are at the dentist’s, waiting to have your teeth cleaned. The dentist office is full of patients. You sit down and your mind starts to wander – you think about the errands you need to run after the appointment, the work you haven’t finished, and your lunch appointment tomorrow. Before you know it, your name is called. If you are asked how long you have just waited, you might feel you didn’t wait that long because your mind was occupied by many thoughts and you didn't feel bored at all. However, before estimating the length of the wait, if you are reminded of all the things that you thought about during waiting: errands, work, lunch tomorrow, you might realize that since you had been thinking about so many things, the wait must have been quite long! In the former case, your judgment was based on your feelings during the wait – how bored I felt. In the latter case, your judgment was based on the thoughts that you had as mental markers to infer how long you have waited – the more thoughts I had, the longer the wait must have been. Then the natural question is: when does each type of judgment (based on feelings vs. mental markers) take place? In this research, we seek to obtain some answers to this question. We propose that people will spontaneously rely on their feelings when making duration judgments, and will resort to mental markers only under certain conditions.

In addition, we also examine whether the way that people think (abstractly or concretely) affects their duration judgment. Specifically, we propose that people who think at a concrete (vs. abstract) level tend to think more about things that are not related to the wait itself. Therefore, those concrete thinkers are more distracted and less likely to feel bored during a wait, and consequently judge the wait to be shorter.

In a field experiment, café patrons were first asked to complete a questionnaire, which was designed to temporarily induce them to think either abstractly or concretely. After completing the questionnaire, they joined the line to order their food. When they had finished, they were asked to estimate how long they had waited in line. We found that those who had completed the “concrete questionnaire” judged the wait to be shorter than those who had completed the “abstract questionnaire”. In another study, participants who were recruited from an online panel first completed a survey that was again intended to induce an abstract or concrete mindset. They were then told that the next study would take some time to load, which was in fact a waiting task in disguise. Later on, when asked to estimate the loading time, the concrete thinkers (compared to abstract thinkers) judged the same wait to be shorter and this difference was driven by the fact that concrete thinkers felt less bored.

So when do people rely on their thoughts as mental markers to infer duration judgment? We found that people would do this when their thoughts were made more salient. In one experiment, for example, after participants had waited for a study to load on the computer, some were asked to list the thoughts they had during the wait before judging the length of the wait. We found that when people were asked to write down their thoughts first, the opposite pattern occurred: concrete thinkers actually judged the same wait to be longer, and this happened because they had more thoughts during the wait, and thus inferred the wait to be longer.

We also found that people would resort to mental markers when their feelings faded away over time or when they didn’t trust their feelings. In one study, some of the participants were asked to estimate their waiting time after a delay. In this case, concrete thinkers judged the same wait to be longer, presumably because their feelings have become less accessible after a while and they instead relied on the number of thoughts as mental markers.

In another study, half the participants were asked to recall a situation when they had relied on their feelings and it turned out to be the right thing to do (and thus they would trust in their feelings in general) whereas the other half were asked to recall a situation when they relied on their feelings and it turned out to be the wrong thing to do (and thus they would have low trust in their feelings). We found that when people had high trust in their feelings, we replicated our earlier findings that concrete (vs. abstract) thinkers judged the same wait to be shorter presumably because they felt less bored. However, for people who had low trust in their feelings, we found the opposite pattern: concrete thinkers judged the same wait to be longer, presumably because they relied on the number of thoughts they had instead.

Our research has important managerial implications for product and service providers. Since the perceived wait length is directly linked to customer satisfaction, our findings offer useful insights as to how to reduce consumers’ perceived wait. Specifically, we find that, by default, concrete thinkers perceive the same wait to be shorter. This suggests that product and service providers could potentially alter the waiting environment to induce consumers to think concretely. For example, past research suggests that pictures tend to be concrete and words tend to be abstract. This means that decorating the retail or service environment with more pictorial elements may induce a concrete mindset, which could potentially reduce consumers’ perceived wait.