The horror of waiting: PwC's Lullu Krugel on the economics of lateness

If someone's late for a meeting, here are some insights that will help you to cope with the stress.

By Lullu Krugel, chief economist at PwC South Africa

A couple of weeks ago, while waiting for someone to show up for a meeting, I asked a question on social media: How long are you willing to wait for someone that you are meeting? The average seems to be ten minutes, no longer. There were a few more patient individuals, myself included, that were willing to make it fifteen minutes. 

However, what was also clear is that having to wait for someone who is late elicits powerful emotions. For most people, waiting for others running late feels like a waste of precious time. 

While in the age of smart phones we can usually let each other know if we are running late, sometimes things still go wrong. The psychology of waiting is more important here than the statistics of the wait itself. To understand why we respond strongly to having to wait for others, or being stood up, we can draw on insights from behavioural economics and queuing psychology. Luckily, there are also some damage control strategies we can adopt when having to wait for others, or when we are running late ourselves. 

Why waiting drives us up the wall
When arriving early for a meeting, we do not mind waiting until the scheduled time arrives. However, every additional minute after the scheduled time might feel like two. This is known as the ‘appointment syndrome’. 

Running late can happen to the best of us – then why do we find waiting for others so frustrating? Three cognitive characteristics help us understand our waiting behaviour as well as our annoyance: 

The uncertainty of the wait
The uncertainty of the wait is crucial to driving our sense of frustration, according to insights from queuing psychology. Estimating the wait time and substantiating it through explanation can do a lot to make any wait feel finite and more reasonable. 

Disney World has mastered the art of queuing psychology and not only shares estimated wait times for rides with queuing visitors, but also deliberately overestimates them. Visitors who are told their wait time is longer than it actually is are positively surprised when the queues move faster than expected. 

Our expectations therefore drive how we feel about waiting. Beating expectations can lift our mood. If we know that the person we are meeting is generally ten minutes late and he or she arrives only five minutes after the scheduled time, we might almost feel delighted.

Sunk cost 
Sunk cost indicates the time, money or effort already dedicated to a task, which we cannot recover. Intensive preparations and an arduous journey to the meeting might convince us to wait longer than we would have otherwise. Else, what was the point of all the effort? Similarly, having already spent some time waiting for someone can lead us to wait even longer to avoid the feeling of losing our initial investment. We tend to avoid losses at all costs, although sometimes we are better served cutting our losses and moving on.

Social proofing
Lastly, we often adopt the behaviours of others in an attempt to conform to a socially acceptable way of acting – a common characteristic termed social proofing. Through what we perceive as acting in a socially acceptable manner, we hope to avoid offending others. Plus, if everyone else is doing it, surely we cannot be faulted. As a result, we might wait longer or shorter periods, depending on how people around us might behave in this situation. 

Waiting well 
The frustration that builds in us when having to wait for others can tarnish our personal and business relationships. There are some tips we can consider while waiting for others, or some damage control strategies to employ if we are running late ourselves.

The bottom line is that occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time. To quote philosopher William James, “Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself”. Some organisations have taken this to heart: After numerous complaints from their passengers having to wait too long for their luggage to arrive at the carousel, an American airport extended the distance passengers had to walk from the plane to the carousel. Complaints dropped to almost zero, even though passengers were not saving any more time than before. Walking felt like productive time, while waiting did not. It just goes to show that while we are occupied, the passing of time does not feel as lengthy as it would otherwise. Therefore, in the instance where we find ourselves waiting for someone who is late, we can do something to keep us busy, like reading an article, listening to a podcast or attending to some admin.

Happy moments
The final moments strongly influence our overall memory of the waiting experience. If a long wait ends on a happy note (the person arrives) we tend to look back on it positively, even if we experienced negative emotions while waiting. However, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes (the person never arrives), thinking back on the experience will skew our memory towards the negative outcome. This skewed memory might explain why people will queue for hours for a thrilling ride at a Disney Park or to taste the food at an acclaimed restaurant.

Social interactions can improve our feelings about the waiting experience. To enhance the time we spend waiting, we can try to make conversation with the person at the table next to us, with the bartender, or receptionist – depending on the context. This might improve our overall experience and even end our waiting experience on a high note.

What to do if YOU are running late
To battle the prospect of anxiety in the person waiting for you, it is best to set the right expectations and even overestimate the time it will take you to arrive at the meeting. Furthermore, it helps to explain why you are running late, as evidence suggests that explained waits feel shorter than unexplained waits. Effective expectation management is a great damage control strategy: prepare them for a longer wait and arrive before that threshold.

It is important to keep the person in the loop. It is never advisable to tell someone ‘soon’. Telling someone you will be with them ‘soon’ is only a little better than telling them you will not meet with them at all. This is not what someone anxious to meet with you wants to hear. Uncertainty breeds nervous anticipation, combined with the feeling of powerlessness. It is therefore sensible to be specific with someone you have kept waiting, otherwise the wait time might feel like forever. 

So, when disaster strikes and you have to make others wait for you, you can employ the best that behavioural economics and queueing psychology have to offer to protect your relationships. 

Additional research by Maura Feddersen and Nina Kirsten, economists at PwC’s Strategy& the global strategy accounting team at PwC.