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Why humans hate to wait and what our impatience says about us

In a world characterized by instant gratification, waiting emerges as a universally dreaded experience. Yet, it’s an inevitable part of our daily lives, whether we’re stuck in traffic or eagerly anticipating the results of an election.

Annabelle Roberts, an assistant marketing professor at Texas McCombs, delves into this common human experience through her insightful research.

Closer look: Decision-making and waiting

Roberts’ studies, detailed in two new papers, shed light on the intricate dance of patience and impatience, revealing the significant role of closure in managing our waiting experiences.

Her work also offers lessons on what marketers can do to make waiting less annoying. She says, “Everyone has had this experience of getting overly frustrated while they’re waiting.”

Roberts’ research centers on the impact of the desire for closure on our patience levels. In one study, she collaborates with Alex Imas and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago to explore how this need influences our decisions, particularly when faced with the option of receiving a reward now versus later.

Their findings illustrate a counterintuitive truth. People often prefer to exert more effort or pay more upfront to achieve closure sooner.

How the research was conducted

In a series of studies carried out both online and in laboratory settings, participants faced choices that tested their patience: either to undertake more work immediately or to defer the effort for a lesser workload later, with the outcome remaining constant.

The studies found that participants leaned towards options that granted them closure more swiftly, manifesting a willingness to either pay a premium or exert additional effort.

Specifically, they opted to pay an extra dollar if it meant they could settle payments promptly and eliminate the pending task from their mental checklist.

Similarly, the option to complete 15% more work upfront for identical compensation was more appealing if it enabled them to conclude the task sooner.

Furthermore, faced with the desire to clear their minds before a vacation, participants chose to work an extra hour without pay to finalize a report, over the option of completing it for pay upon their return.

Impatience paradox: When waiting becomes too much

This phenomenon highlights a deeper aspect of impatience — it’s not merely about the eagerness to obtain a reward but also about the relief that comes from completing goals.

“The need for goal closure helps explain the counterintuitive preference for working more sooner or paying more sooner,” Roberts explains. “It’s also about crossing goals off their list, not having the goal hanging over them.”

Roberts’ insights hold valuable lessons for both management and marketing. Understanding that the desire for closure can motivate people to avoid procrastination, managers can devise strategies to enhance team motivation effectively.

Moreover, the research provides a critique of marketing promotions like “buy now, pay later” deals, suggesting that consumers might reject these offers to avoid the looming stress of future payments.

Emotional trajectory of waiting

Roberts’ second paper, in collaboration with Fishbach, delves into the emotional journey of waiting. Their research reveals that the distress associated with waiting intensifies as the end approaches.

“This paper was about people’s feelings, their experiences while they wait,” Roberts says. “When you expect the wait to be ending soon, you become more impatient closer to that expectation.”

This was observed in real-life scenarios, such as the anticipation for the COVID-19 vaccine or the arrival of a bus, where individuals reported increasing levels of impatience as they neared the moment of fulfillment.

This trend was also evident during the 2020 presidential election, with supporters of both candidates experiencing heightened impatience as the vote counting progressed.

“Even for those who expected their candidate wasn’t going to win, they just wanted to get this over with,” Roberts says. “This nicely demonstrates the desire for closure and how it plays out in the experience of waiting.”

Roberts suggests practical applications of her findings for businesses, especially in managing customer expectations around waiting times.

She advises that companies prepare customers for longer waits to mitigate impatience and communicate any delays early in the waiting period, allowing customers to adjust their expectations.

Future focus: Beyond immediate gratification

As Roberts continues her research, she aims to identify interventions that can help individuals manage their waiting experiences more effectively.

“I want my research to help people manage their waiting experiences,” she states, emphasizing the importance of developing strategies that enable people to make better decisions, such as saving for the future, by enhancing their patience.

In summary, Dr. Annabelle Roberts’ pioneering research analyzes the psychological underpinnings of impatience, offering valuable insights into how the need for closure drives decision-making and emotional responses during periods of waiting.

By dissecting the motivations behind our desire to expedite tasks and the intensifying distress as waits draw to a close, Roberts enhances our understanding of human behavior and provides practical guidance for individuals and businesses alike.

Her work emphasizes the importance of managing expectations and the potential for targeted interventions to foster patience, ultimately aiming to improve the quality of our decisions and our overall experience of waiting in everyday life.

The full study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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