CheckoutCWe’ve all been there. You’re cruising the checkouts at WalMart, trying to score a short line that nobody else has spotted yet. You know it’s a losing battle.  You know you’re doomed.  But you’ll still send your spouse down the way to look for better checkout opportunities.

Now, it’s obvious how this is going to turn out. You’ve fought the battle before. Last time, just before your turn, they changed cashiers, and you ended up waiting for the original clerk to cash out and the new, even slower, one to get signed in.  Another trip, those two women ahead of you were sharing the same shopping cart and had two separate transactions to get checked out.  And they couldn’t keep straight who was supposed to pay for which items.  One other time that guy had a sack full of coupons, half of them expired, and he insisted on arguing every one. It really doesn’t matter how long you take figuring out which line will move the fastest, you will almost invariably pick the slower line. How does that happen, or is it just your imagination?

Well, yes it does happen time after time.  And, no it’s not your imagination.

In fact, this is such a universal experience that there is even a Facebook community called “The other line you’re not standing in, always moves faster.”  As of yesterday it had 4,284 “Likes.”

Some people would claim the whole phenomenon is in your head, that you just imagine the whole thing.  And that’s a fairly believable theory.  If you’re standing in one of several long lines, it only makes sense that one will move forward, then another, then another. When the line to my right moves by me, I get upset and wonder why mine is falling behind.  When the line to my left moves, I really start feeling sorry for myself, all my antenna go up, and I’m watching for any further sign of how I’m being abused.  When my line finally does inch forward, it doesn’t seem like any special favor is being bestowed on me.  Moving forward, I’m most focused on the people in front of me and how quickly, or not so quickly, they might be getting out of the way.  When the people beside me are being passed, they are ignored and only become important again when they start moving faster than I am.  While falling back, I become the victim, and while moving forward I’m just accepting what karma owes me.  It all seems like a pretty natural human reaction.

Bill Hammack, the engineer guy,  knows just how bad your odds are.   In a video available at http://www.engineerguy.com/, he explains why other lines always move faster, or at least most of the time.

Let’s say it’s a small store, only three lines available,  Line A, Line B, and Line C.  You pick the middle line, Line B.  It’s obvious one line will be the fastest, one line will be the slowest, and of course one falls somewhere in the middle.  Hammack says there are actually six distinct possibilities.  If A is the fastest, B could be second and C slowest.  Or A could be fastest, C second, and B third.

If B is the fastest, A could be second and C slowest. Or B could still be fastest, while C comes in second and A third.

Finally, C could be fastest, A second and B slowest.  Or C fastest, B second, and A slowest.  He demonstrates all this with a simple diagram showing the different ways the race could come out.  Hammack, the engineer guy, used professional looking, computer generated graphics, but for our purposes here, I’m just going to jot a representation down on this table napkin. Take a look:

NapkinACB (2)If all this looks a little confusing; take my word for it, it does make sense.  Six possible finishing orders for that race. And in only two of them are you going to feel good about the results. And, human nature being what it is, I’m guessing if you win, you’ll hardly notice.  But if somebody else, that is either of those other lines, ends up being faster (as in four out of the six chances) you will go home grumbling.

If there were five lines, your odds of achieving happiness fall to only 20%, and if you can keep track of seven lines, you’ll have less than a 15% chance of feeling good about all this. Care to think about the odds in an average WalMart on Saturday afternoon with fifteen checkout lines going?  My math skills are always in question, but I’m thinking you are about 95% assured of coming out a loser.  And as a repeat loser, you will notice that everybody else in those competing lines has already left the building, left the parking lot, and is halfway home.

Yes, you really do pick the slower line… (almost) every time.

Bill Morgan





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