Last Place Aversion in Queues

Ryan W. Buell, Harvard University, 2019, 19-118-05

Recent research has shown that people are “last place averse,” altering their preferences and behaviors in order to avoid being in last place. In many contexts, last place is ambiguous, since it is difficult to assess where in a distribution an individual perceives herself to be, and which distribution is at the top of mind. However, every queue has an end, and with it, an identifiable individual who is in last place.

In this paper, Ryan Buell documents the customer and system-level effects of last place aversion in queues, distinguishing it from other drivers of queuing performance. At the customer level, the paper shows that after controlling for other factors, queuing in last place can diminish wait satisfaction, while increasing the probabilities of switching and reneging – behaviors that can be maladaptive for customers in the sense that they undermine outcomes.

Individuals in last place were found to be more than twice as likely than others waiting for service to switch queues, after controlling for other factors that should rationally influence the decision to switch, such as the relative states and service rates of both queues, and in the absence of visual information that could aid them in forecasting which line might be faster. Indeed, last place participants who switched queues were found to wait longer on average than those who did not, and as a consequence reported being less satisfied with their waiting experiences. Similarly, after controlling for other factors, individuals in last place who had the most to gain from waiting were found to be more than five times more likely to abandon queues than those waiting in other parts of the line – behavior that in practice undermines customer utility and firm profits.

The results provide evidence that this tendency to renege is due in part to the last place individual’s inability to make a downward social comparison, raising the question, “if nobody is willing to wait longer than me, then is staying in this queue worthwhile?” Consistently, the results further show how queue transparency can be used as an effective design lever to stave off the negative effects of last place aversion in queues. For example, the results suggest that a call center that emphasizes what’s taking place in front of the customer when they are in last place, and that additionally reveals the growing queue behind them when they’re not, should see a reduction in defections.

Finally, the paper demonstrates that these customer-level effects have important system-level consequences. Experimentally eliminating the effects of last place aversion in the final study, by ensuring that no waiting participant ever perceives themselves to be in last place, reduces defections by 43.5%. With equivalent arrival and service rates, queues without last place aversion sustained a higher peak capacity and longer wait times, resulting in 12.5% more people being served over time. Taken together, these results reveal last place aversion to be a consequential and systematic bias that undermines the experiences and behaviors of customers, and the performance of queueing systems, which can be proactively managed through operational design.

Ryan W. Buell is the UPS Foundation Associate Professor of Service Management in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School.

Related links

Trust Through Transparency
Michael Norton (Video) [2013]


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