What are we waiting for?

by grouperlab

Prof. Caldwell (BC) here….

One potential value of a blog like this is its grain size.  Ideas that are too small for a journal paper or full grant proposal, but still of some potential interest for later use, can be just the right size for a 1100 word blog entry.  Just a couple of references, the outline of a project or concept for further development, and a tease for those who might find GROUPER an appealing place to study, collaborate, or support.  Here’s the first of those items.

Last Monday, I was in Chicago (after a weekend of graduation parties for two new PhDs, Ashley and Karim) to submit a visa request for a trip to China.  When I arrive at the Chinese Consulate at about 9:45, there is a room full of people sitting and waiting, a line of people standing and waiting, and five windows of clerks.  Since I’m there for a visa, rather than something else, I select a ticket for that type of service, and sit down.  How long am I going to have to wait, and will it matter that the Consulate closes at 12 noon for lunch?

Other IE researchers sitting in this waiting room might start thinking about queueing models and arrival distributions, but my friend and I began to discuss the perception of waiting and the sense of time pressure.  This field of human perception research dates back to the laboratories of Wilhelm Wundt and William James (not to be confused with author brother Henry James) in the 19th Century, and the concept of the “perceptual now”.   In this model, one’s sense of time passage is tied to two processes—a sampling of an internal clock, and processing of one’s own task activities (physical or mental).  The more you are doing during a period of external (“objective”), the fewer samples of the internal clock one takes, and the larger the list of things done between sampling cycles.  The theory suggests that the sense of having the time “filled” leads to a lower sense of boredom, and less perceived time passage.  Conversely, with less to do, there are more opportunities to sample the internal clock, and less activity that is perceived as filling that period between samples.

Prior work in the lab has studied not only the issue of time perception, but of time pressure.  Instead of conceiving time pressure as just the amount of time until a deadline arrives, we have considered pressure as a ratio of time required for a task (Tr) to the time available (Ta) to complete it.  Waiting is a challenge, though, because there is both the time required to do the thing you came to do (file the visa paperwork), and the time waiting to get to the window to do the thing you came to do.  Thus, we have a compound task of passive waiting and active doing, both with their own Tr / Ta ratio and a composite ratio.

So, while I am working this out, I notice that time has passed, and the number called is closer to my number.  OK, the queueing folks have something to say here—I’m trying to estimate the average service time for my type of service.  But, I’m also noticing that by having something else to do, one source of stress (time perception) is reduced.  Because this is a Chinese Consulate, I also think about tai chi and meditation activities.  This leads to a consideration of four different ways that one could deal with the wait, and four different experiences of the passage of time:

  • Pause:  a quiet state, without attending to time (sleep or meditation)
  • Hold:  passive waiting, low activity / limited attention to other tasks (“watching the clock”)
  • Distract:  using the waiting time to do other tasks, not attending to time
  • Do:  Active involvement in the task one intended to do.

Time pressure, in terms of the Tr / Ta ratio, now looks like the sum of wait time (which is an estimate of the average service time * the number of people in front of me) + my service time, divided by the time from now until noon.  (Yes, I’m skipping over a lot.  If you want more, get in touch with us.)  It’s looking better, because some people are not there, and average service time is going down—but it’s getting closer to noon.

The sense of time pressure is another element of the psychological effect of the Tr / Ta ratio, but this has multiple factors including individual personality, cost of missing the deadline, “hardness” of the deadline (is 12:00 really 12:00:00, or a few minutes after 12, or something else?) , and prior experience.  There seem to be four stages of this sense of time pressure affecting the experience of waiting (especially when it’s hard to attend to something else):

  • Comfortable
  • Pressured
  • Panicked
  • Resigned

The lab has done some work in determining where the transitions are between these stages, but there is a lot tied to the complex interaction of person, situation, context, and experience.  There are different strategies to help the experience of a user dealing with pressure-laden delays.  I tend to like the distraction and pause responses, as well as ensuring that backup plans and additional flexibility keep pressured from morphing into panicked.  That’s for me, though, from the user’s perspective.  Some of our papers also discuss strategies from the provider’s perspective.

In the end, I got to the visa window at about 11:50, and only took about four minutes to provide the required forms.  I could talk more about the nature of service quality, but that’s for another time and venue (I will be working on a contribution to an edited volume on intercultural service systems later this spring).   I got a pickup slip indicating when I should return for the passport and visa—that Friday—and what to do—stand in the pickup line.  If I had gotten to the window with the documents by 11:00, I could possibly have gotten rush service and picked up the visa by 2:00 that afternoon.  However, there was no sense of pressure there, since I didn’t know about that earlier deadline and thus made no effort to arrive at the consulate early enough to meet that deadline.  (Hmmm… there’s no pressure from a deadline you’re not aware exists; one can create artificial internal deadlines where no external deadline or performance impact exists.)  All in all, a pretty good morning’s experience.

Oh, and why am I going to China?  Giving lectures on human factors and systems engineering for the development of a university program in industrial engineering.  How fitting.

For further reading:

Caldwell, B. S., and Wang, E. (2009). Delays and User Performance in Human-Computer-Network Interaction Tasks.  Human Factors, 51 (6), pp 813-830.

Caldwell, B. S., and Garrett, S.K.  (2010).  Coordination of Event Detection and Task Management in Time-Critical Settings.  In Mosier, K., and Fischer, U. (Eds.,) Informed by Knowledge: Expert Behavior in Complex Settings, ch. 22.  Florence, KY: Psychology Press / Taylor & Francis.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: H. Holt and Co.

Svenson, O., & Maule, A. J. (Eds.). (1993). Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making. New York: Plenum Press.