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The Good Wait

What those subway countdown clocks do to your brain.

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Patience and restraint are saintly things, the very guardrails of urbane human society. But really, who has the time? When we’re even mildly strained by, say, a long line at the bodega checkout or a prerecorded soliloquy of soulless telephone apologies, then the devil step aside, because in our heads, fomenting behind those forced smiles, we are each gods being scorned. This is what Ambrose Bierce had in mind when he drafted his alternate definition for The Devil’s Dictionary. “Patience,” he wrote, “is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

Perhaps it’s because waiting is psychically painful. In 1985, psychologist Edgar Elías Osuna established the two specific factors most contributing to this discontent: the minutes already lost to the wait and the uncertainty of how much delay remains. This isn’t terribly surprising; we’d expect that the longer one must wait, the more stress one experiences. But his data also revealed something else, which is that this increasing stress response is effectively canceled out when the individual knows in advance when service is likely to come.

Anyone who has taken the subway in the past year or so and has tilted his head skyward to one of the MTA’s new “Public Address Customer Information Screens” and their real-time train-arrival information has experienced this firsthand. You still aren’t going where you need to be going, and thanks to the fare hikes, you are paying more for that privilege, but you look at the countdown clock and it’s somehow okay. The MTA must know this, which accounts for why it is still installing the monitors even amid its budget crisis.

Another, more recent study suggests that the palliative effects of a defined wait rely on a trick played on the mind. In their 1996 research, two Hong Kong investigators showed that when informed of the expected wait time, the consumer actually overestimates what this duration will be like to endure. Yet despite that, the sense of control gained leads to significantly greater customer satisfaction. For those providing the unpunctual service, this has a big upside: It means consumers are more likely to forgive a longer than a shorter wait, provided they are simply kept informed about how long the wait will be. It’s true at the doctor’s office, and it’s true on the platform of 6 train.

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