Customers’ Reactions to Waiting: Effects of the Presence of 'Fellow Sufferers’ in The&Nbsp; Waiting Room

Ad Pruyn, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
Ale Smidts, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
ABSTRACT - In a field experiment, Social Facilitation Theory (SFT) and Affiliation Theory (AT) were applied to waiting. SFT predicts the effects of 'waiting alone’ or 'waiting with others’ on the waiting experience. As predicted, when the wait is long, waiting with others makes it less aceptable. Under these conditions, waiting times are also less accurately estimated.
[ to cite ]:
Ad Pruyn and Ale Smidts (1999) ,"Customers’ Reactions to Waiting: Effects of the Presence of 'Fellow Sufferers’ in The&Nbsp; Waiting Room", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 211-216.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 211-216

CUSTOMERS’ REACTIONS TO WAITING: EFFECTS OF THE PRESENCE OF 'FELLOW SUFFERERS’ IN THE  WAITING ROOM

Ad Pruyn, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

Ale Smidts, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

ABSTRACT -

In a field experiment, Social Facilitation Theory (SFT) and Affiliation Theory (AT) were applied to waiting. SFT predicts the effects of 'waiting alone’ or 'waiting with others’ on the waiting experience. As predicted, when the wait is long, waiting with others makes it less aceptable. Under these conditions, waiting times are also less accurately estimated.

AT prescribes the conditions under which one shows preference to wait with others; a preference which proves to be stronger when one feels anxious or uncertain during the wait.

These results imply that though customers may prefer to wait with others, the effects of group waiting can be detrimental to the acceptability judgment and interfere with the estimation of the waiting time duration. This has implications for the design of waiting rooms.

INTRODUCTION

In many service situations (such as in hospitals, at airports and in shops), customers are expected to wait amidst 'fellow sufferers’, often in crowded waiting areas. Sometimes management aims to reduce the number in the queue to as few people in the waiting room as possible (such as with services by appointment: doctors, dentists, consultants, etc.). In such cases the patient/client has to wait in (relative) isolation.

In marketing and service management literature only very few studies have been aimed at the effects of the presence of other people in service settings. In one of these studies, Hui and Bateson (1991) demonstrated that (perceived) crowding may influence consumers’ moods and decisions to enter the service process. Others (Granbois, 1968; Langer & Saegert, 1977) have reported that in-store decision making and behavior can be affected by the mere presence of other consumers in the shop.

The purpose of this research is to understand how the presence of others affects a customer’s evaluation of waiting. Social Facilitation Theory (Zajonc, 1965) is used to predict the effects of waiting alone (or with others) on perceived waiting time and the acceptability of the wait. Affiliation Theory (Schachter, 1959), on the other hand, deals with subjects’ preferences for waiting either alone or with others.

The question about which effects waiting alone or with others can have on the evaluation of the wait is particularly relevant with regard to designing the physical layout and furnishings of the waiting area (Baker and Cameron, 1996). Service managers may, for example, decide to design a waiting area that either facilitates social interaction among customers or provides privacy.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WAITING

Attention to the consumer’s subjective (psychological) experience of waiting has a relatively short tradition. Only since the nineties has marketing literature published studies concerning customers’ appraisal of the wait (Katz, Larson & Larson, 1991; Hornik, 1993; Taylor, 1994; Baker & Cameron, 1996; Hui & Tse, 1996; Pruyn & Smidts, 1998). A large part of recent waiting experience research is based on an article by Maister (1985) in which the "psychology of waiting lines" is introduced on the basis of eight popositions. The importance of many of these studies lies in understanding the influence that waiting conditions can have on the perceived waiting time and/or the emotions that waiting can evoke. The presence of others is one such condition, which, to date, has received little empirical attention. In following Maister (1985), Baker and Cameron (1996) have proposed that the presence of other people in the service setting will result in more positive affect and lower perceived waiting time duration. According to them (p.345) this is especially the case when other customers are "welcomed as contributing to the degree of filled time". This proposition is claimed to be based on social facilitation theory (Zajonc, 1965). In our opinion, however, Baker and Cameron have incorrectly interpreted social facilitation theory, since this theory does not predict effects related to filled time or distraction, but instead asserts that the mere physical presence of others has the effect of increasing one’s general drive level. Higher drive, then, should make dominant responses (behavior, feelings or mood) more likely to be emitted, at the expense of subordinate responses (Zajonc, 1965). In this theory, the concept of response dominance is related to 'habit strength’ in Hull-Spence learning theory, in the sense that well-learned or well-trained responses are the most dominant ones (cf. Pruyn, 1986).

For social facilitation theory to be applied to waiting situations, it is necessary to identify the dominant responses in such conditions. Research shows that when the actual waiting time is long, negative affect will prevail, whereas when the waiting time is shorter than expected, people will feel relief and acceptance (see, e.g., Pruyn & Smidts, 1998). Thus, social facilitation theory would predict that the presence of others during waiting will result in enhanced discomfort when the wait is long, but in enhanced relief when the wait is short. With respect to the perceived waiting time duration, it is less easy to state the dominant response in advance. Although Hornik (1984) found a general tendency to overestimate waiting times, there is also evidence that subjects tend to overestimate relatively short time intervals and underestimate relatively long ones (Allan, 1979). In general, the question whether a waiting time interval will be over- or underestimated may well depend on (e.g.) the specific waiting environment, situational circumstances (which determine the waiting subject’s state) and even trait characteristics. Thus, before any prediction with respect to time estimation can be made based on social facilitation theory, we should first establish the dominant response (over- or underestimation) in the specific waiting situation.

Baker and Cameron (1996) have also introduced the concept of social intrusion to suggest that the presence of other people whilst waiting for service may be unwanted, presumably leading to even more negative affective states. In our opinion, this suggestion can be linked to affiliation theory (Schachter, 1959) which deals with peoples’ need (or preference) to be in the company of othersBa need that would appear stronger when one feels uncertain or anxious. In many waiting situations customers enter the queue without precisely knowing how long the wait is going to last. Also, customers may be ignorant about what to expect from the service operation, or may even be anxious about the pending treatment (such as when visiting a dentist or a doctor). According to Schachter (1959), in such situations other people may be seen as a potential source of reducing uncertainty or anxiety. In waiting situations, particularly those in which you have no idea how long it is going to last, the speed with which those in front of you are processed can be an indication of how long the wait is going to be and thus reduce uncertainty (Kumar, Kalwani & Dada, 1997). Also, by observing other people one may reduce anxiety about the pending treatment. Other people may even offer some consolation, especially in situations when the waiting subject is anticipating painful treatment.

FIGURE 1

HYPOTHESIZED RELATIONSHIPS IN THIS STUDY

This research examines the effects of the presence of 'fellow sufferers on the waiting experience in the waiting room of family doctors. Interestingly, affiliation theory (Schachter, 1959) and social facilitation theory (Zajonc, 1965) would suggest conflicting approaches for managing waiting conditions: whereas customers may prefer to wait with others, the potential negative effects of a lengthy wait may be boosted by the presence of fellow sufferers.

HYPOTHESES

In Figure 1 the conceptual model for this study is shown.

In the model we distinguish between effects of, and preferences for the presence of others during waiting. The evaluation of the wait consists of two components: (a) the acceptability of the wait; and (b) subjects’ over- or underestimation of the actual waiting time. The latter variable can be defined as the difference between the objective (clocked) waiting time and the subjective estimation (or perceived duration) of the waiting time (in minutes).

As has been shown by others (e.g. Taylor, 1994), we expect that:

Hypothesis 1:   The longer the objective waiting time, the less customers will accept the wait.

With respect to the presence of other customers during waiting, social facilitation theory (Zajonc, 1965) predicts that in 'audience’ conditions dominant responses will be enhanced. The dominant response is expected to be a function of the actual waiting time (see Hypothesis 1). Thus, an interaction effect between social condition and objective waiting time on acceptability is predicted:

Hypothesis 2a:   In a relatively short wait, customers will accept the waiting more when spent in the company of others than when spent alone; when the wait is long, customers will be less inclined to accept the wait when they are with others than when they are on their own.

A similar hypothesis can be stated for the perceived duration of the wait. It should first be established, however, whether the dominant response is over- or underestimation of the actual waiting time. Thus,

Hypothesis 2b:   The tendency to [over- or under-]estimate the objective waiting time will be stronger for customers who are waiting with others than for customers waiting alone.

Apart from the presence of others during waiting the acceptability judgment and the perceived waiting time may also be influenced by the atmosphere in the waiting room. Baker and Cameron (1996) have proposed a model in which a connection is made between (physical) elements of the waiting environment and the waiting (time) experience. Music, for example, would appear to influence the waiting experience and the waiting time appraisal (Hui, DubT & Chebat, 1997). Pruyn and Smidts (1992, 1998) have shown that the attractiveness of the waiting environment (spatial layout, furnishings, temperature, ambiance) indeed plays an important role in the waiting experience and the total evaluation of the service. Customers perceiving the waiting environment as attractive may be brought into a positive mood, which sets the tone for a favorable appraisal of the wait itself. Thus,

Hypothesis 3a:   The greater the perceived attractiveness of the waiting environment, the more acceptable the wait.

Also, several authors (e.g. Maister, 1985; Baker & Cameron, 1996; Pruyn & Smidts, 1992, 1998) have proposed that an attractive waiting environment will (positively) affect the perceived duration of waiting (e.g. because of distraction). Hence we hypothesize,

Hypothesis 3b:   The greater the perceived attractiveness of the waiting environment, the more the actual waiting time will be underestimated.

With regard to preferences for waiting alone or with others, Schachter’s (1959) affiliation theory predicts that subjects will have stronger needs for affiliation when they experience uncertainty or anxiety. In health care situations both emotions may manifest themselves: one may feel uncertain about the length of the wait and anxious about the pending treatment. Thus,

Hypothesis 4:   The more uncertainty and/or anxiety experienced by the customer, the stronger his/her preference to wait in the company of others.

According to Maister (1985) and Kumar et al (1997), uncertainty about the length of the wait and anxiety during the wait will also (negatively) affect its evaluation. Therefore, we expect

Hypothesis 5a:   The more uncertain or anxious the customer is about the wait, the less the wait will be accepted; and

Hypothesis 5b:  The more uncertain or anxious the customer is about the wait, the more (s)he will be inclined to overestimate the actual waiting time.

As Taylor (1994) found a relationship between objective waiting time and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, we will also explore these relationships.

METHOD

Subjects and Procedure

The research was conducted among patients of two family doctors (in a large metropolitan city in the Netherlands). Patients visited their GP during consultation hours (without appointments). On five separate days of the week, 108 visitors were randomly selected for their cooperation. In each subject’s case it was registered whether they had waited on their own or in the presence of others. The criterion thereby was that the time between entering the waiting room and being called in to see the doctor had either been spent entirely on one’s own or together with at least one other patient. Of the subjects, 40 waited alone and 58 in the presence of others. Ten patients refused cooperation, either because they did not want to or because they had too little time. The actual waiting time was registered for each subject from the moment (s)he entered the waiting room to the moment (s)he was called into the consulting room. On leaving, the patient was intercepted in the hall and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Filling out the questionnaire took no more than 5 minutes.

The waiting environments of the two consulting practices ere quite comparable with regard to furnishings, lay-out and atmosphere.

Measures

The questionnaire comprised three dependent variables: (1) the acceptability of the wait; (2) a subjective estimate of the duration of the wait in minutes; and (3) the preference of waiting either alone or with others. Explanatory variables, besides the objective duration of the wait (registered) and the two waiting conditions (alone vs. with others) refer to the perceived attractiveness of the waiting area (on four attributes: agreeable, pleasant, comfortable, relaxing; Cronbach a=.80), feelings during the wait: anxiety about the pending treatment (1 item) and uncertainty about the length of the wait (1 item). Four questions specifically refer to the evaluation of the treatment (the friendliness of the doctor and his assistant, the doctor’s attention and the length of time he took for the treatment). Also background characteristics (age, gender) were enquired after, mainly for descriptive purposes. With the exception of the questions regarding age and gender and the estimate of the duration of the wait, all the questions were presented on 5-point scales.

RESULTS

General

The age of the respondents lies between 17 and 83 years (average 37 years). Almost as many men (48%) as women (52%) took part in the research. Gender and age of the respondents do not differ significantly between the two doctors’ offices. Nor is there any difference in background data between patients waiting alone or in the presence of others. The majority of the respondents’ evaluation of the waiting area ranged from moderate to very positive. However, 15% of the patients found the waiting room disagreeable, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and non-relaxing.

With regard to the service rendered, patients were (very) positive: only 2% complained about the lack of friendliness of the doctor’s assistant, 3% felt that the doctor allotted little time for the treatment, whereas only one respondent found that the doctor spent too little attention on his ailments.

The actual waiting time amounted to just over 11 minutes on average (51 minutes was the maximum waiting time). Moreover, patients appeared to somewhat underestimate this waiting time: on average one thought to have waited for 9 minutes. Of the respondents 13% found the wait unacceptable.

Acceptability of waiting

In Hypothesis 1 it was predicted that the longer the objective waiting time, the less acceptable the wait. Hypothesis 1 is indeed confirmed (r= -.22; p= .017 (one-tailed)) and provides evidence that the dominant affective response is acceptance when waits are short, and relative non-acceptance when waits last long.

Next, an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was performed with objective waiting time and social presence as the two experimental variables and perceived attractiveness of the waiting environment, uncertainty about the duration of the wait and anxiety about the treatment as three covariates [Because of various missing values this analysis was carried out for N=90 respondents. In the ANCOVA the regression approach was used. No multicollinearity among the independent variables exists. More specifically (and unlike the results of Taylor (1994)), the correlation between objective waiting time and uncertainty about the length of the wait is only .11 (p=.29). Neither is the waiting condition related to uncertainty (r=.10).].

FIGURE 2

INTERACTION BETWEEN OBJECTIVE WAITING TIME AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS (ALONE VS. WITH OTHERS) ON THE ACCEPTABILITY JUDGMENT OF THE WAIT (5="VERY ACCEPTABLE")

The results show that social presence in interaction with the objective waiting time indeed influences the acceptability of the wait (F1,83=5.72; p= .019). Figure 2 shows this interaction between waiting condition (alone vs. in the company of others) and objective waiting time. For illustrative purposes we present three categories: waiting times -5 minutes; between 6 and 10 minutes; -11 minutes, with the acceptability of the wait as dependent variable. As was predicted in Hypothesis 2a, if the patients’ wait was short (a situation that is relatively acceptable), they appear to find this more acceptable when waiting together with others than when they had to wait alone; if the patients’ wait was longer, however (a situation found less acceptable), one sees an opposite effect: then people appear to find the wait less acceptable when together with others than when on their own. Follow-up tests reveal that (in Figure 2) the slight increase in acceptability of waiting for people in the "alone" condition is not significant (F2,87= .87; p= .30), but that the decrease in acceptability for people in the "group" condition is (F2,87= 5.62; p= .006).

Also, the perceived attractiveness of the waiting area appears to have a significant effect: the more pleasant one finds the waiting environment, the more acceptable one finds the wait (t= 1.86; p= .033 (one-tailed)). Hypothesis 3a is thus confirmed.

The third factor concerns the degree of uncertainty about the expected duration of the wait. As was stated in Hypothesis 5a, there is a tendency to judge the wait as more acceptable when one is more certain about how long the wait is going to be (t= 1.79; p= .035 (one-tailed)). This appears to be in support of Maister (1985) and Hui and Tse (1996) who emphasized the importance to customers of information about expected waiting times. Anxiety about the pending treatment did not significantly affect the acceptability of the wait (p= .90).

Perceived waiting time: over- and underestimation

The influence of the presence of 'fellow-sufferers’ during the wait was also tested for the perceived waiting time (in minutes). As we were interested in the dominant response (over- or underestimation of the waiting time duration), we first explored differences in time estimation between long and short waits. After a median split on objective waiting times, it appears that in the case of lengthy waits subjects tend to underestimate the waiting time (M= -4.24), whereas when waits are relatively short subjects sooner overestimate the waiting time, or mae more accurate estimations (M= .77; t= 4.66; p<.001).

In Hypothesis 2b we predicted the enhancement of dominant responses (over- or underestimation) in the presence of others. A second ANCOVA reveals that the interaction between objective waiting time and social presence on time estimation is indeed (marginally) significant (F1,89= 3.23; p= .076). Hypothesis 2b is thus confirmed: if patients tend to overestimate the time (when the wait is short), they appear to overestimate stronger when waiting together with others (M= 5.3 minutes) than when they have to wait alone (M= 3.3; post-hoc t= 1.59; p= .061 (one-tailed)); if the patients tend to underestimate the time (when the wait lasts longer), however, they underestimate the time when together with others more strongly (M= -5.2) than when on their own (M= -2.8; post-hoc t= 2.23; p= .015 (one-tailed)). Thus, though weaker than with the acceptability of the wait, social facilitation also takes place with respect to the time estimation task.

The perceived attractiveness of the waiting environment does not affect subjects’ (over- or under-)estimation of the wait (p>.65). Hypothesis 3b is therefore rejected. The effects of uncertainty about the length of the wait (p>.13) and anxiety during the wait (p>.52) on the perceived duration of the waiting time (Hypothesis 5b) were also insignificant.

Preferences for waiting alone or in the presence of others

On the basis of Schachter’s affiliation theory (1959), the prediction was that patients would prefer to wait with others particularly when they feel uncertain. Measured on a 5-point scale, our results show that 46% of the respondents do not have a strong preference for one or the other. Of those who do have a preference, 18% say they would rather wait alone, and 36% together with others. Thus, there is a tendency to prefer waiting with others.

As expected, patients who were anxious about the doctor’s treatment appeared significantly more often to show a preference for waiting with others than those who were not (t= 1.84; p= .034 (one-tailed)). Also patients who felt uncertain about how long the wait was going to be appear to prefer waiting with others and those who do not feel uncertain prefer to wait alone (t= 1.91; p= .030 (one-tailed)) [Of the anxious patients 56% perfer to wait with others, 13% prefer to wait alone and 31% have no preference. Of the non-anxious patients the percentages are 32, 21 and 47, respectively. For patients uncertain about the length of the wait these percentages are 42, 14 and 44 and for relatively certain patients: 21, 31 and 48, respectively.]. These results support the affiliation theory (Hypothesis 4). What is remarkable here, however, is that people do not only seek the company of others when they are anxious or uncertain for physical reasons, but that also uncertainty about the duration of the wait can be a cause of affiliation. Schachter’s experiments (1959) dealt primarily with a physical source of uncertainty (an injection with an effect unknown to the subject).

DISCUSSION

This research shows that when interpreting Maister’s (1985) and Baker and Cameron’s (1996) propositions about contacts between 'fellow sufferers’ in waiting situations, a cerain prudence is called for. If one concentrates on the effects of waiting alone versus waiting with others, it must be concluded that these propositions (that waiting with others is less irritating) only apply to situations in which the wait is relatively short; waiting is then somewhat acceptable to the client (or (s)he may even feel relieved that the wait is so short). As soon as the duration of the wait expires, however, and the evaluation of the acceptability thereof diminishes, the presence of fellow sufferers notably appears to result in less tolerance with regard to the wait. These results can be fully explained by social facilitation theory (Zajonc, 1965). According to this theory, the presence of others results in an enhancement of the individual’s dominant behavior, feelings or moods. A relevant remark here is that according to this theory even the 'mere’ physical presence of another person can evoke this effect. This implies that people do not necessarily have to interact with one another to achieve the abovementioned results.

Also with respect to time estimation the predicted social facilitation effect was found: the difference between objective and perceived waiting time increases in the presence of others. More specifically, when subjects are waiting in a group they are less able to accurately estimate the objective waiting time than when they are waiting alone. Zajonc (1965) would explain this result by referring to task difficulty: keeping track of time (a difficult task) becomes even more difficult when others are present. An alternative explanation may be offered by the attentional model of time perception (Zakay, 1989). According to this model, attracting the attention away from the passage of time will affect time estimation. Attention is drawn away from the internal clock responsible for the perception of time. The presence of others in the waiting room can be seen as a source of distraction resulting in patients being less occupied with time and thus keeping track of time less accurately.

This study also shows that people tend to prefer to wait with others, particularly in situations in which they feel uncertain or anxious. According to Schachter (1959) and many authors after him, people hope to draw comfort from the company of others, particularly in situations in which they feel anxious. But also when one feels uncertain, others can supply information to reduce that uncertainty. This study did not enquire after the reason(s) why one prefers to wait with others than on one’s own. We assume, however, that the affiliation backgrounds differ for patients who are afraid of the treatment ahead of them (they benefit from the company of others probably because comfort can be drawn from them), and for those who feel uncertain about how long the wait will last (here the others present may be expected to probably reduce this uncertainty). Further research is necessary to explain the affiliation requirement in waiting situations from motives concerning either social support or dependence on information.

The relevance of the difference between effects of and preferences for waiting alone or in the company of "fellow sufferers" lies in the fact that although it might be more appealing to victims of waiting situations to share their fate with others, from a management perspective it may seem less obvious to group people in one large waiting room: the wait will then become a greater source of irritation and discontentment (particularly when the wait is long). As far as the furnishing and spatial layout of the waiting room is concerned, this finding suggests that the customers’ wish to wait together must be met despite the simultaneous restriction of the negative effects thereof. By a carefully planned arrangement of furniture, flower boxes etcetera, the interaction between customers can be minimalized without their feeling totally isolated from one another. In the last case it would add to the customers’ uncertainty about the duration of the wait, which in turn would have a negative effect on the acceptability. Further research is needed to establish whether the positive effect of reducing uncertainty is larger than the negative effets of social presence during long waits.

Management must also strive to make the waiting environment as pleasant as possibleBa factor which appears to have a large influence on the evaluation of the wait. If, as was the case in the doctors’ offices used for this study, one sixth of the customers is quite displeased with the waiting environment, then this offers a first opportunity to reduce irritation.

This study provides evidence that social facilitation and affiliation effects are present in waiting situations. A limitation of the study is the small sample size that decreases the power of the tests. We also did not have experimental control over the objective waiting time, with the result that length of waiting and waiting condition (alone vs. with others) are not orthogonal factors (r= .27). Furthermore, multiple-item measures for all constructs would have been preferred. However, we opted for a brief questionnaire to avoid a further delay for the respondents.

Concerning the external validity, visiting a GP’s consultation hour is quite similar to entering the queue of a bank, a barber shop, or any other service provider without appointment. Of course, anxiety about the treatment may interfere with the waiting experience. However, in this study no such effects were found. Thus, we consider this study as typical for first-come-first-served situations in which considerable time is spent in waiting areas.

Further research is needed to replicate and enhance our findings. One interesting avenue would be to study the effect of different designs and layouts of the waiting area on the waiting experience.

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