According to the experts, the best explanation for why consumers wait in line just so that they can hand over money for the newest iPhone or a Black Friday doorbuster deal is that … it’s fun?
A New York Times op-ed published over the summer declared in the headline that waiting in line is “torture,” and here’s why:
Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis.
So true. Everybody hates lines. Or do they? Despite the largely universal loathing of lines and time wasting away unnecessarily, it’s become commonplace in society today for consumers to willingly, happily volunteer to partake in such torture, waiting on line for hours, if not days, for the latest iPhone or Nike sneakers, as well as for Black Friday sales and rides at Walt Disney World.
What can explain such behavior? Why is it that we can gripe about lines at airports and government offices one second, and then break our backs standing in them outside an Apple Store the next, all the while there are plenty of other, far more reasonable ways to get what we want?
For the most part, consumers aren’t waiting in line for logical reasons. They aren’t there to get the absolute best prices, nor (limited edition Nikes notwithstanding) to get their hands on a scarce, highly valuable commodity. What is it, then?
Consumer analysts and marketing researchers offer this explanation, which is puzzling to those of us who try to avoid queues like the plague: Waiting in line is fun, and makes you feel good about yourself.
Wait, what? What about the idea that lines are torture, and that we suffer the “nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away” while waiting in them?
Apparently, stronger psychological forces are at work, at least when it comes to a certain breed of shopper. “The shared experience of waiting is part of what’s driving consumer satisfaction,” according to the experts cited in a MarketWatch story. Instead of the communal suffering in a wait to get through an airport TSA checkpoint, waiting outside an Apple Store for the latest iWhatever, or camping out on a Best Buy sidewalk before Black Friday, has become a giddy, exciting experience shared by those willingly joining in.
Being surrounded by like-minded consumers, who have also decided that it makes sense to wait in line, is a sign that you’re not alone—and that your choices on what to buy and how long it’s worth standing around to buy it are sound:
[It's] a concept known as “social proof.” And that holds true even in the face of considerable logic to the contrary; a name-brand television, for example, is actually more expensive on Black Friday than on several other holiday-season shopping days
Since Black Friday has just so-so prices on big-name TVs, and the iPhone can be purchased without requiring anyone to wait in lines, it would seem to be pretty easy to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes. Instead, thanks to brilliant marketing and the stubborn crowd mentality, Daniel M. Ladik, a marketing professor at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, tells MarketWatch that he thinks lines for the newest, most buzzworthy products are here to stay:
“It’s a community thing,” he says of those lines stretched outside Apple stores. “There’s no other logic to it.”
If there’s one thing that people who hate all lines and people who only hate lines that don’t involve Nikes, Apple products, Black Friday, Disney, or video games can agree on, it’s this, from the Times story:
Perhaps the biggest influence on our feelings about lines, though, has to do with our perception of fairness. When it comes to lines, the universally acknowledged standard is first come first served: any deviation is, to most, a mark of iniquity and can lead to violent queue rage.
In the case of iPhones especially, fair line etiquette is observed and it’s always first-come, first-serve. And all who wait in line can call themselves winners: They secure bragging rights and an ego boost when getting their hands on the new gadget before anyone who didn’t wait in line.
Then again, the folks who didn’t bother to stand overnight outside an Apple Store can also consider themselves winners, and smarter-than-average consumers — because they didn’t just waste a bunch of time standing in line.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.