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Why fans prefer might to queue in serpentine lines

Think back to the last time you went to the supermarket. Now picture choosing your check-out line…

You stare at each line, attempting to factor all the relevant variables into this very important equation: How many people are in that line already? How many items does each person have in their cart? Once you’ve made your final determination, you stroll triumphantly to your destination with the confidence and certainty that you’ve successfully gamed the system. Nobody fools this guy!

Then, it happens. The moment you commit to a line, the line next to you starts moving faster. People in that line are experiencing pure bliss. You’re certain that you just saw one of them throw a smug look in your direction: “You chose that line? Loser.” Damn!

You see people who got in line after you making their way to the check-out station, while the person at the front of your line is counting out pennies. It’s 2017, who still pays for groceries with pennies?! Get a credit card, you half-wit! You find yourself screaming at them in your head, cursing your misfortune at having chosen a line that included the world’s most incompetent shopper.

Now, there’s a moment of truth… Do I switch lines? I’ve already invested so much in this line… But that line is moving so much faster! 

Screw it, I’m going for it…

You hurry to change lines before the person with the 27-item shopping cart makes it there. You don’t care; first come, first serve!

And then, it happens…again. Your new line grinds to a halt, while your original line now seems more like an Easy-Pass™ lane than the one you were just standing in. Are they even paying?! How is this possible?!

You curse your luck. I can’t win, you think.

For anyone who has experienced this feeling – and I’m assuming that’s everyone – there’s a fundamental behavioural principle at the heart of this seemingly irrationally frustration: regret. Not just regret that we had to experience something unpleasant. In this case, it’s even more aggravating: We regret that we made the wrong choice; regret that if we had only made a different decision, things would have turned out differently. I thought about choosing that other line. Why, oh why, didn’t I?!

This is known as a “counterfactual,” or the psychological tendency to imagine how a situation could have played out differently. Our minds naturally gravitate to this mode of thinking, never more so than after something negative occurs.

This is also the psychological basis for “armchair quarterbacking:” Seattle, why didn’t you run it on 3rd-and-goal in the Super Bowl instead of passing?! We can’t help it; the possibility of what could have been drives us crazy.


In that spirit, the popular TV show MythBusters took a turn at cracking the conundrum: “What line format leads to greater satisfaction: serpentine lines (everyone gets in one long line), or pick-a-line (you pick your line)?”

The “myth” they were testing: Faster-equals-better.

Fact #1: Pick-a-line is faster than serpentine

In a re-creation of a grocery store, the MythBusters crew determined that the pick-a-line format is faster than a serpentine line by about 15 per cent; not an insignificant margin when reducing the time spent by people doing something they hate.

Faster-equals-better is a perfectly intuitive assumption – one that many companies have no doubt made (more on this in a minute). If everything that seemed intuitive also turned out to be true, however, then there would be no meaning to the term “counter-intuitive”. Clearly, we know that term has meaning.

We have our friends from MythBusters to thank for debunking this myth. In addition to concluding that pick-a-line is faster, the crew also found that…

Fact #2: People overwhelmingly prefer serpentine lines.

And therein, as they say, lies the rub.

Compounding the pain we experience from regret over choices that didn’t work out is the principle of Loss Aversion: we dis-proportionally feel and remember losses more than equivalent gains. It’s not a 1:1 relationship; in fact, it’s more like a 2:1 relationship. In waiting-in-line terms, this means that for every one time we pick the slower line we’d have to make two correct selections just to break emotional-even.

Over time, this isn’t possible; luck balances out in the end. Just not in our minds.

People prefer serpentine from a satisfaction standpoint – even though it is slower – for one simple reason: there is no possibility of regret or loss; we literally can’t be wrong.

“Our league just conducted this study!” 

That’s the response I got from a friend – whose family owns a major North American sports team – as I began to tell her about the MythBusters experiment.

She continued: “We did some analytics, and found that pick-a-line is faster than serpentine lines. Based on this, the league recommended to all of our clubs that whenever possible we should adopt the pick-a-line format, because it’s better for the fan experience!”

I debated how best to break the news to her about her league’s conclusion.

“Yeah…” I said to her. “That’s going to be a problem.”

Kevin Brilliant spoke at the recent Leaders Sport Business Summit

This article features in SportBusiness International’s 2018 Fan XP report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF document here.  

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