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Please take a number

by Karli Vezina

As the world begins to reopen, and more and more folks feel comfortable resuming social activities, we thought this might be a good time to talk about lining up?

The pandemic has likely skewed the queue for many of us - 6 feet apart, limited entrance. But let's imagine a day in the not too distant future when we can return to our instinctive need to game the queue.

You know what we're talking about. Scanning the lines to see how many people are in each, jumping in behind whomever has the least amount of groceries in hopes they'll be faster? Well, turns out there's some science behind what we do, why we do it and what's actually happening.

The matrix of time

When you’re in line to checkout, the other lines around you appear to be moving faster. You begin to doubt your critical thinking skills and wonder if you should abandon your line for a faster-moving one. Writer Kirill Tšernov at Qminder dug into some of the science behind this phenomenon. He discovered our personal sense of time doesn’t run as efficiently as a real clock because it’s subjective and is largely swayed by how we feel. Studies show that paying attention to the passage of time slows it down because we are bored and are only focusing on one thing. Scientifically speaking, this means time really does fly when you’re having fun.

Brain bias

Another insight into why the other lines always seem to move faster comes from a psychology point of view. Tšernov mentioned a common phenomenon, the illusory correlation. To put it simply, this is when our brain makes a connection between two things that does not exist. We see something, our brains perceive it as a correlation, and we think A + B = C when really, this is not so. Tšernov gave an example of the common belief that crazy people come out during a full moon. This association is an illusory correlation and it’s a cognitive bias our brains can’t help making.

"Youtown", population: 1

People, facts or events that stick out in our minds are more salient than others. According to our brains, we, ourselves are the most salient thing in our lives so we are the centre of our own universe. This is why the other lines appear to be moving faster because they are moving around us, the centre of it all. It’s another brain trick we can’t really help.

The next time you’re in a queue and find yourself calculating a little too much, try getting out of your head with some light reading, a word puzzle or a game on your phone. As soon as you’re having fun, time will truly fly.


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