Why the other queue always seem to move faster than yours

Whether it is supermarkets or traffic, there are two possible explanations for why you feel the world is against you, explains Tom Stafford.

Sometimes I feel like the whole world is against me. The other lanes of traffic always move faster than mine. The same goes for the supermarket queues. While I’m at it, why does it always rain on those occasions I don’t carry an umbrella, and why do wasps always want to eat my sandwiches at a picnic and not other people’s?

It feels like there are only two reasonable explanations. Either the universe itself has a vendetta against me, or some kind of psychological bias is creating a powerful – but mistaken – impression that I get more bad luck than I should. I know this second option sounds crazy, but let’s just explore this for a moment before we get back to the universe-victim theory.

My impressions of victimisation are based on judgements of probability. Either I am making a judgement of causality (forgetting an umbrella makes it rain) or a judgement of association (wasps prefer the taste of my sandwiches to other people’s sandwiches). Fortunately, psychologists know a lot about how we form impressions of causality and association, and it isn’t all good news.

Our ability to think about causes and associations is fundamentally important, and always has been for our evolutionary ancestors – we needed to know if a particular berry makes us sick, or if a particular cloud pattern predicts bad weather. So it isn’t surprising that we automatically make judgements of this kind. We don’t have to mentally count events, tally correlations and systematically discount alternative explanations. We have strong intuitions about what things go together, intuitions that just spring to mind, often after very little experience. This is good for making decisions in a world where you often don’t have enough time to think before you act, but with the side-effect that these intuitions contain some predictable errors.

One such error is what’s called “illusory correlation”, a phenomenon whereby two things that are individually salient seem to be associated when they are not. In a classic experiment volunteers were asked to look through psychiatrists’ fabricated case reports of patients who had responded to the Rorschach ink blot test. Some of the case reports noted that the patients were homosexual, and some noted that they saw things such as women’s clothes, or buttocks in the ink blots. The case reports had been prepared so that there was no reliable association between the patient notes and the ink blot responses, but experiment participants – whether trained or untrained in psychiatry – reported strong (but incorrect) associations between some ink blot signs and patient homosexuality.

One explanation is that things that are relatively uncommon, such as homosexuality in this case, and the ink blot responses which contain mention of women’s clothes, are more vivid (because of their rarity). This, and an effect of existing stereotypes, creates a mistaken impression that the two things are associated when they are not. This is a side effect of an intuitive mental machinery for reasoning about the world. Most of the time it is quick and delivers reliable answers – but it seems to be susceptible to error when dealing with rare but vivid events, particularly where preconceived biases operate. Associating bad traffic behaviour with ethnic minority drivers, or cyclists, is another case where people report correlations that just aren’t there. Both the minority (either an ethnic minority, or the cyclists) and bad behaviour stand out. Our quick-but-dirty inferential machinery leaps to the conclusion that the events are commonly associated, when they aren’t.

So here we have a mechanism which might explain my queuing woes. The other lanes or queues moving faster is one salient event, and my intuition wrongly associates it with the most salient thing in my environment – me. What, after all, is more important to my world than me. Which brings me back to the universe-victim theory. When my lane is moving along I’m focusing on where I’m going, ignoring the traffic I’m overtaking. When my lane is stuck I’m thinking about me and my hard luck, looking at the other lane. No wonder the association between me and being overtaken sticks in memory more.

This distorting influence of memory on our judgements lies behind a good chunk of my feelings of victimisation. In some situations there is a real bias. You really do spend more time being overtaken in traffic than you do overtaking, for example, because the overtaking happens faster. And the smoke really does tend follow you around the campfire, because wherever you sit creates a warm up-draught that the smoke fills. But on top of all of these is a mind that over-exaggerates our own importance, giving each of us the false impression that we are more important in how events work out than we really are.

This is my BBC Future post from last Tuesday. The original is here.

9 Comments

  1. Posted September 2, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Great. I love throwback theories. And the parallel effect is especially interesting. We humans sure are grumpy, or maybe that’s just us Westerners. As for the wasps, I might ask if you drink beer with your sandwiches.

  2. bazzargh
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I can’t tell if this explanation is in the BBC link (because oddly that part of the Beeb is not accessible from inside the UK), but one explanation for other queues being faster is simple probability – even if you just look at the queues either side of you, there’s only a 1 in 3 chance you picked the fastest one.

  3. Mason Kelsey
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    So zombies don’t have this particular problem then. Good. Now my mind is at peace.

  4. Posted September 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    In a story about Michael Hastings I
    was referred in the comments to a
    NYT link concerning Hemingway and
    what he went trough thinking that
    “the Feds” were after him.

    FBI FOIA revealed just that.
    Even when he checked into a mental
    hospital anonymously, “they”, the Feds,
    were literally right there with him.
    Hoover really was after him. You know,
    the guy who kept the files who was
    injecting speed. Not a typical or common
    thing thank God.

    BUT IT IS NOT AS UNCOMMON AS PEOPLE
    WHO MAKE THEIR LIVING DEALING WITH
    PEOPLE’S PROBLEMS WOULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE.

    Tragically and almost comically, when
    “the Feds” really are after you
    everything is meant to look, is designed
    to look exactly like paranoid psychosis
    is taking root in the person of their
    very real intense interest. THIS is how
    the FBI can get away with just about
    anything.

    Nudging, pushing, well placed rumors…
    It doesn’t matter who or what you are.
    When waiting in line it is not useful
    to know that it is no problem to
    manipulate your line, the line next to
    you so that you are left wondering…
    It is not useful to wonder too much
    b/c if your wildest suspicions are
    true, there is nothing you can do
    about it even after all the pretense
    is dropped and nothing is done to hide
    what is happening b4 your no longer
    questioning eyes.

    I’m sure journalist Daniel Shore was
    questioning himself when Pat Buchanan
    Nixon, Halderman and Erlichman really
    did have the FBI harassing him even
    after Shore was able to confront
    Buchanan on national TV. Much worse
    is done since 911 and not confined
    to legendary writers, journalists,
    whistleblowers, activists or prisoners.
    It is happening to ordinary civilians
    right in front of everybody. And no,
    these programs are, as said, not common.

    • Posted September 3, 2013 at 1:30 am | Permalink

      When Shore confronted Pat Buchanan
      on TV the FBI harassment was long over,
      Shore was in his 80’s and Buchanan
      verbally ran right over him by saying,
      something like, “we didn’t fool around
      this was the big time”. Too bad Buchanan
      din’t serve any prison time like the others
      in the Nixon admin.

  5. fairyhedgehog
    Posted September 3, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. While I know that not taking an umbrella doesn’t cause rain and I can’t possibly always pick the slowest queue, the mental bias is strong; it’s interesting to look at the mechanism behind such illusory correlations.

    (I was going to comment that “the universe really is out to get me” as a joke but it seems that someone else got there first.)

    • Posted September 4, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Hemingway, “crazy” as he was, probably
      did not think his line was always slowest
      or that his umbrella or “the Feds” could
      controll the weather and did not think
      the universe was out to get him. He seemed
      to be more specific, and, as FOIA suggests,
      not crazy despite alcohol and all other
      “proof” to the contrary. When security
      agencies are after someone as Michael Hastings might have found out, everything that happens is meant to convince the public, “friends”
      and particularly therapists that the person’s
      mind turned on itself. Doubts persist but,
      fortunately for domestic security, that’s all
      that does.

  6. Tony
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    “the general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other.” Francis Bacon, 1627

  7. Tony
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    “the general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other.” – Francis Bacon, 1627


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