Brain Food #617

That feeling of being last

Thoughts of the day

It is, by now, a well-known fact (often painfully discovered from experience), that changing lines at the supermarket, or the airport security, or anywhere else that offers us a choice on where we should stand and wait, will not truly save us time.

A recent Harvard Study investigated what people did in a busy, multi-checkout grocery store. When having the option of switching to another virtual line, 20% of participants did so, but instead of saving time, they added 10% to their overall waiting time. Some people changed lines twice, and ended up waiting 67% more on average.

The reason? They despised being last, even if they were closer to the front than someone in a different queue, who still had people behind them. Being at the back of the line made people anxious, which resulted in an overall poor experience, and them trying to feel that they were taking their luck into their own hands by trying a line that appeared to be speedier.

There may be a broader lesson to be found in this small example of human impatience: no matter how good other paths may look, and how well others may be doing in comparison to our own situation, if we stick to our choice, we will move faster. And that feeling of being last, always so demoralising, may not necessarily mean that we are not close enough to where we need to be.

“I think one thing that is a really important thing to strive for is being internally driven, being driven to compete with yourself, not with other people. If you compete with other people, you end up in this mimetic trap, and you sort of play this tournament, and if you win, you lose. But if you’re competing with yourself, and all you’re trying to do is — for the own self-satisfaction and for also the impact you have on the world and the duty you feel to do that — be the best possible version you can, there is no limit to how far that can drive someone to perform. And I think that is something you see — even though it looks like athletes are competing with each other — when you talk to a really great, absolute top-of-the-field athlete, it’s their own time they’re going against.”

— Sam Altman