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It can be frustrating to get stuck in line somewhere with no end to your wait in sight, but what about waiting is it that gets under our skin?

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[INTRO ♪].

Picture this: you're at the grocery store and you just want to go home and make dinner, but you're stuck in line and the guy in front of you is pulling out canned goods like he is not in a race— some kind of snail man— and there's a person in front of him that's having a problem with their check. It's taking forever, and the other lines are just as bad.

We've all experienced this form of purgatory. Waiting in line can be so unbearable that many people will pay hundreds of dollars to avoid it, whether it's at the airport or for a ride or a rollercoaster. But even though we all hate waiting, the frustration isn't necessarily because of how long you have to wait.

It's how you experience the waiting that matters— how you think about waiting, and how you spend the time. So there are ways to make waiting feel less awful. Psychologists and operations researchers, for instance, have discovered that if you're bored, that wait is going to feel a lot longer.

In one experiment, a bank in downtown Boston installed a Times Square-style news ticker to try and bump up customer satisfaction. The average wait time actually increased slightly, compared to when the bank didn't have the ticker. But because the customers had something to do, they said they were willing to wait a little bit longer, and left happier.

Some customers were even convinced that the bank had hired more tellers and had sped up their service. Distractions like this can be powerful because they affect how quickly you think time is passing. Psychologists have found that our ability to estimate time partially depends on how much attention we devote to something.

In one set of experiments, scientists told some volunteers that they were going to ask them to estimate time. Then, these volunteers were given two visual search tasks— one easy, and one hard—for various lengths of time. And, finally, they guessed how long it took to do each one.

While the participants were pretty good at estimating how long it took them to do the easy task, they underestimated how long the complicated one took. For example, people thought a four-minute challenge took less than three minutes. Trials like these have led some psychologists to propose that we have a limited pool of so-called attentional resources.

And if your brain is engaged with something, you have fewer resources to devote to tracking time. But when you don't have anything to focus on, like if you're standing in a long grocery line, your attentional resources are focused on time passing. And that makes time seem like it's going very slowly.

Even though we have these hypotheses, neuroscientists don't know much about what your brain is actually doing. It's possible that all brain tissue is involved in sensing time, although your right parietal cortex may be especially important. People with damage to this part of the brain make mistakes when they estimate short amounts of time.

Now, because our perception of time depends on what we're doing, companies have figured out that they don't necessarily need to cut down on wait times to keep customers happy. Sometimes, they can do some counterintuitive tricks to take advantage of what we know about the psychology of waiting. The Houston airport, for instance, was getting a lot of complaints from passengers that it took too long to pick up stuff at the baggage claim.

So the airport actually moved their arrival gates farther away from the baggage claim, so that passengers would have to walk farther to get there after landing. And you would think people would be upset about the longer walk, but they weren't, and it kept them occupied. By the time they made it to the baggage claim, they only had a few minutes of waiting left.

The number of complaints dropped, even though the total wait time had not changed at all. Waiting can also be made less miserable if you have some heads up about it. One business school experiment done back in 1999, when the Internet was tortoise-speed, found that people who were told how long a webpage would take to load viewed the site more positively than those with no information.

They had the volunteers waiting for the websites to load for up to four minutes! Which is so great, I'm so happy that it's not 1999! The idea here also boils down to attention.

If you're not sure when the page might load— or when your number might be called at the DMV— then you're going to be paying more attention to time. Like, will it be 20 seconds or 20 minutes? Psychologists have also proposed that this kind of uncertainty can make people anxious, which could make the wait seem longer.

So, the next time you're suffering in a line, don't panic! You have some control over how you perceive the wait, no matter how long you end up waiting. So find something interesting to do!

Chat up your fellow line-standers. Read a book. Or, I got an idea—get your phone out and learn more about your brain by watching another SciShow Psych episode, like this episode right here about how far people will go to fit in.

And don't forget to go to and subscribe! [OUTRO ♪].