In 2012, the NYTimes published a story titled "Why Waiting is Torture". We have taken a look at the science behind waiting and expectations based on this NYTimes article, why the DMV feels like one of the worst culprits, and how you can avoid this torture completely.

"Why Waiting is Torture"

According to Alex Stone, who wrote this NYTimes Opinion piece in 2012, "the experience of waiting, whether for luggage or groceries, is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait".

His example was this: Some years ago, Houston airport executives were receiving a large amount of complaints about waiting at baggage claim. When the Executives analyzed the data, they found that on average, passengers spent 1 minute getting from their arrival gate to baggage claim. At baggage claim, the spent an average of 7 minutes waiting for their bags. The solution: The airport moved the arrival gates further away from baggage claim.

Instead of waiting at baggage claim, passengers spent that idle time walking to baggage claim. Complaints disappeared overnight. Mr Stone explains part of this psychology:

"Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). Research on queuing has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they’ve waited in a line by about 36 percent."

This also explains why people will often pick shorter, slower moving lines than longer, faster moving lines (the expectation is more hopeful). Or why impulse buying earned supermarkets $5.5 billion last year (anything to stay occupied). Or why mirrors are often put next to elevators (anything to distract oneself from the wait). People want to feel occupied and certain, as opposed to unoccupied and uncertain.

Unfortunately in the case of the DMV, waiting takes a different twist that often leads to more torture.

The Uncertainty of Waiting at the DMV

Your expectations for waiting generally determines your mood when leaving a queue or a place: If the wait is much longer than expected or there is nothing to do (or both), you might leave very dissatisfied.

This phenomenon is often the case at the DMV: You might show up expecting long waits, but despite that expectation, you may still leave frustrated. This can largely be explained by uncertainty:

Uncertainty of how long the line will actually take, uncertainty of the numbering system once you get a number, uncertainty if you have the right forms and documents, and uncertainty if you will leave with good news, such as a new registered vehicle or a driving permit.

In short: Even if you go in expecting a long wait, there is still lots of uncertainty when you visit the DMV. That uncertainty magnifies the stress of the queue.

How Long Should You Wait? 

Another form of DMV queueing torture is that people still underestimate the time they will have to spend at the DMV. Of course wait times vary significantly around the country - by day, time, and location. In cities, as you would expect, DMV wait times are typically much higher than smaller town offices.

But would you expect a wait of 4 hours? On Tuesday November 22nd, we grabbed this screenshot on wait times at the Santa Monica, California office. The wait at 1:30pm in the afternoon: An unbelievable 3 hours and 50 minutes.

The day before at the same time the wait was 3 hours and 20 minutes. And today, November 29th, the wait at the Santa Monica was a (pleasant?) 1 hour and 50 minutes. That's right, it's hard to calibrate and set expectations when every day is different. Should you be happy with a 2 hour wait today or not? The short answer is no, you should not.

How You Can Decrease DMV Wait Times and Uncertainty

Here are 3 strategies to decrease your wait time at the DMV, decrease your uncertainty, and decrease your unoccupied time.

  1. If you NEED to go the DMV today, try to set your expectations correctly. See if they have average wait times online somewhere so you can get a ballpark number. This will help you avoid going in expecting a 1 hour wait and getting a surprise 4 hour wait. We've even published a list of California wait times by office, and will be adding more soon.
  2. Make an appointment if it's not an emergency. This is our biggest piece of advice. If you can wait a week or two, make an appointment. You will be so much happier that you did. We built an online scheduler where you can request an appointment in seconds and we'll even send you the forms you need to take with you. The scheduler is still being previewed on a limited basis, but you can get early access - and an appointment - here.
  3. Bring your phone and stay entertained. If you've done step 2, then your wait should not be too long, but you still may have some idle time. Think about this idle time as an opportunity to get lost in your smartphone, browsing the news, messaging friends, or even checking out our social media pages on Facebook and Twitter!

Conclusions on DMV Waiting

Not only does waiting not have to be torture (stay occupied, have certainty, set correct expectations), sometimes a good chunk of the wait can be avoided. We had a happy California resident book an appointment via our scheduler and share this with us last week:

Now we definitely can't guarantee you're going to be the first one in the door and at the counter when you show up, but hopefully you won't have to wait too long.

Finally, at least you understand some of the psychology of the wait now. Be thinking about this post when you do wait in your next queue. #nomorelines

 

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