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Waiting Is Easier When People Change Their Perception of Time: Study

A businessman checking the time on his watch while sitting at a desk.
Posted 2020-06-16
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A new UBC Sauder School of Business study shows abstract thinkers get more aggressive when they wait — but employers can help shift their patterns.

Whether they’re staring at their phones before a meeting begins, stalled on a project because of a missing piece of information, or repeatedly checking their email inbox for an important email reply, employees across most sectors have one thing in common: they are regularly forced to wait. 

In fact, research shows that employees arrive late to meetings more than 60 per cent of the time, which slows their coworkers — and those waits can be linked with anger, frustration and even outbursts of aggression.

But according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, it’s not the length of the wait that really raises some people’s ire — it is how long people think they’ve been waiting. 

For the study, titled Putting time in perspective: How and why construal level buffers the relationship between wait time and aggressive tendencies, participants were told they would be working with a partner on a creative project, and they could leave once it was complete. Unbeknownst to them, their fellow participant was instructed to arrive either five or 10 minutes late.

After they completed the joint task, the participants filled out a survey about their experience, including what it was like to work with the other person, and about any feelings of anger or aggression they experienced.

At the same time, the researchers measured whether the subjects were more abstract thinkers — that is, people with a high construal level who tend to look at the big picture — or more concrete thinkers, who tend to have a lower construal level and focus on specific details.

According to study co-author Michael Daniels, people who viewed the world more abstractly perceived the wait time as longer and reacted more aggressively than their more concrete-thinking counterparts. 

“People with an abstract mindset tend to focus on the big picture, such as their goals, and the big picture doesn't change all that often. So, you’re thinking about how you’re having to wait for somebody, and how this is getting in the way of your high-level goals like getting that promotion next month,” says Daniels. “The wait becomes this big, monolithic, salient thing — and then you're focused on your internal clock that's just ticking away.”

Abstract thinkers also tend to feel more powerful and confident, so those longer waits are especially problematic. “They think, ‘I can accomplish my goals, but I can't quite do it because I'm forced to wait here,’” says Daniels. “They feel more frustrated by that, and more aggressive as a result.”

In contrast, concrete thinkers aren’t thinking about their goals; they’re focused on whatever is immediately in front of them. “They might notice the commercials on the TV in the waiting room, or they might notice people talking over in the corner,” explains Daniels. “They're more distracted by all of these small changes in their local environment, so the wait seems shorter.”

The study was co-authored by Sandra Robinson from the UBC Sauder School of Business and Dorit Efrat-Treister from the University of the Negev, and published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour. 

Of course, at least some waiting in workplaces is inevitable. So, what can employers do to help cooler heads prevail? According to Daniels, people’s perceptions of that wait time can actually be shifted. 

In a second experiment that was similar to the first, researchers primed the mindset that participants had by completing a written exercise about how they would perform the creative task — which requires more specific and concrete thinking — versus why they would do it, which is more high-level and abstract.

When they got people to consider the task more concretely rather than abstractly, their perception of the wait time decreased and their aggression was reduced, says Daniels. That approach could, in turn, be applied in the real world — and help keep frustration levels, and angry outbursts, down.

So, if somebody is waiting for paperwork to be filed, the employer could say, ‘Here are some other things we need to do in the meantime’ or ‘Here are the specific things we're doing to help this paperwork get through the channels,’” explains Daniels. “Even though the amount of wait might be the same, by focusing on the more concrete steps related to the process, it reduces how long it feels and weakens the link between perceived wait time and aggression."