Selected Journal Publications

08.08.2019

Why Some Waits Seem Longer Than Others

How Long Did I Wait? The Effect of Construal Levels on Consumers’ Wait Duration Judgements
WANG, Jing | HONG, Jiewen | ZHOU, Rongrong
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 45, 2018

The saying “good things come to those who wait” does not offer much comfort to consumers who are stuck in lines waiting for a product or a service (e.g., waiting at the bank or at the doctor’s office). The wait can seem to take forever – at least for some. A recent study has found that people can have different judgements on the duration of the same wait time depending on whether they are abstract or concrete thinkers.

Abstract thinkers are characterized by what authors Jing Wang, Jiewen Hong and Rongrong Zhou call “high-level construals”, meaning that they focus more on goal-relevant features. For instance, when locking a door, they may think in terms of securing their home. Concrete thinkers have “low-level construals” and they focus more on the details and specifics of actions, such as putting the key in the lock.

These two approaches affect consumer judgements of waiting times, which has implications for firms, said the authors.

“It is often the perceived wait time rather than the actual wait time that determines customer satisfaction. Yet people’s perceived durations are not always accurate. They can be influenced by the activities people engage in during the wait, their emotional state and subtle environmental cues, such as music in the background,” they said.

While most prior research has examined the influence of external environment  on people’s wait time perceptions,  this study focuses more on internal factors – the consumer’s construal levels.

The authors first show that consumer’s default response when they asses the duration of a wait is to rely on their subjective feelings. People with low-level construals are distracted by wait-unrelated thoughts rather than the bigger picture of having to wait, so they feel less bored and judge wait times to be shorter. In one experiment, they judged a six-minute wait to be one minute shorter than those with high-level construals. Another study confirmed that people with low-level construals focus more on thoughts unrelated to the wait.

But feelings are not the only way by which people judge wait times.

“There are situations in which people use the thoughts they have generated as mental markers to infer how long they have waited, so the more thoughts I had during a wait, the longer the wait must have been. In this case, low-level (vs. high-level) construal consumers who have generated more thoughts will judge the wait to be longer,” the authors said.

The reliance on mental markers can happen in several conditions. For instance, subjective feelings can become less accessible, which the authors manipulated by asking some participants to judge the length of a wait after a delay. Feelings can also be deemed to be less diagnostic, which was induced by asking another group of participants to reflect on a situation in the past when their feelings and intuition had been wrong, before subjecting them to a wait. In both situations, people with low-level construals judged the wait to be longer than those with high-level construals.

Mental markers can also come into play when they are made more accessible. This was tested by asking subjects to list the thoughts they had had during a wait before judging the wait duration. Again, people with low-level construals found the wait to be longer.

The findings have implications for managers in retail and service industries. For example, they should consider having colorful pictures in the environment, which might help induce concrete thinking and potentially reduce consumers’ perceived wait, the authors said. Marketers might also consider identifying high-level construal consumers so they can try to reduce their perception of wait times.

“Of course, caution is warranted. The default effect of construal level on duration judgements could be reversed when people instead rely on mental markers. Also, from the perspective of enhancing consumer welfare, marketers should focus more on reducing consumers’ actual wait time rather than their perceived wait time,” the authors said.

They also noted that construal levels may affect consumer satisfaction with the wait experience in addition to their judgements about wait time.


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