Fuming in a traffic jam? Angry about waiting? Israeli researchers have an idea
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Fuming in a traffic jam? Angry about waiting? Israeli researchers have an idea

Think concrete thoughts, says BGU team, as study shows people geared to abstract, big picture thinking react more aggressively to wait times than those who focus on the details

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Israelis wait for a train in Jerusalem, February 17, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israelis wait for a train in Jerusalem, February 17, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

People with more abstract, big picture thought patterns are more likely to be bothered by wait times, but adverse reactions to waiting can be managed by guiding people toward more concrete thoughts, Israeli researchers said.

The findings by a team from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the University of British Columbia in Canada have implications for bureaucratic and office management.

Abstract thinking is generally beneficial, often leading to better outcomes, more creativity, and more feelings of power, but can be problematic in some stressful situations, the researchers said.

“For example, if you are waiting for someone who is late to meet you, you are better off thinking in concrete terms, like assuming they got stuck in a traffic jam, compared with abstract terms, like assuming they are disrespecting you,” said Dr. Dorit Efrat-Treister from Ben-Gurion University’s business and management program.

“When someone is late for a call, if you think abstractly, you may think they don’t respect your time, or they don’t think the call is important, and therefore you might become mad. But if you think they may have just misplaced your number or got another call first, you won’t become so annoyed,” Efrat-Treister said in a statement.

The research was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Organizational Behavior last month.

The paper looks at a concept called “construal level,” which refers to the “level of abstraction at which one mentally represents the world,” the researchers said.

More abstract thinkers (with a high construal level) tend to focus on a core goal, the “big picture,” in thought patterns that are broad, holistic and meaningful, or the “why” of the situation.

They feel more in control of their surroundings, and when someone makes them wait, they see that person as thwarting their progress toward a goal and threatening their sense of control, which can cause aggressive tendencies.

They see themselves as having more independence and more power over others, which are threatened by being made to wait.

Low-abstract thinkers focus more on details and context, and view situations as segmented, small units (the “how”). They are more likely to focus on a specific course of action, instead of a number of different paths toward achieving their goal.

Customers wait outside an the Apple store ahead of a new iPhone release in Paramus, New Jsersey, Sept. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

For an example, a low-abstract thinker waiting for a meeting might go over their notes with a highlighter. They will likely notice more changes and stimuli in the environment, which will distract them from the passage of time. A more abstract person might be thinking about advancing their career.

The construal level is determined by both the individual and the context.

Construal levels of thinking have a significant impact on how we perceive wait times, which can in turn influence our reactions to lateness, the researchers argued.

Ahead of their experiments, the team hypothesized that people with less abstract patterns of thinking perceive wait time to be shorter, and those with more abstract thoughts would react more aggressively when made to wait.

Waiting frustrates people and triggers aggressive tendencies, because it is perceived as a waste of time and an obstacle to achieving goals.

Aggression ranges from foul language to violence, and subtle shows of aggression are important because they precede more severe forms. So, understanding triggers like irritating wait times are important, the researchers wrote.

Perceived wait time, or how someone subjectively estimates how long they have been waiting, has a greater influence on people’s behavior than actual wait time, they said.

They conducted two experiments to test the theory.

In one study, the team from the University of British Columbia recruited Canadian public university students. The subjects completed a survey to measure their level of abstract thinking ahead of the experiment.

The subjects were told they would be paired with another participant to do a creative task that would take 30 minutes to one hour, and that they could not use the internet, in exchange for $10.

They were then told their partner was running late, and made to wait for 5 or 10 minutes. The partner then arrived, they completed the task, then filled out a survey to gauge their perceived wait time and feelings of aggression.

The researchers said aggressive tendencies included a desire to yell at the partner, use an aggressive tone of voice, sabotage their work, or ignore, insult, interrupt or exclude them.

In a second study with Israeli university students, the participants were told that they would be paired with another person to do an online task that would take a maximum of 30 minutes, but that they could leave if they finished sooner. They were rewarded with academic credit.

Their partners then forced them to wait until they were both “on the same page,” the researchers said.

People wait in line for a Best Buy store to open on Black Friday, Nov. 22, 2018, in Overland Park, Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The researchers primed the students ahead of the experiment to have either a low or high-abstract mindset.

To gear them for a low-abstract, concrete mindset, the students were asked to plan how to improve and maintain their health. For a more abstract state of mind, they were asked why they should improve their health.

They filled out the same questionnaire aimed at measuring their feelings of aggression following the trial.

Younger participants, who did not have their phones, had a more adverse reaction to waiting, and quickly started banging on desks or fidgeting, and had strong reactions to waiting for short periods of time, the researchers noted.

In both studies, abstract thinkers perceived the waiting time as longer and reacted more aggressively.

“We showed that the level of abstractness influences how long or short one perceives actual wait time. Therefore, we can influence the perception of the wait time and thus manage aggression,” Efrat-Treister said.

The researchers suggested that for employers, reducing waits and delays — or perceived waits and delays — for workers will boost efficiency and could improve attitudes.

Employees could encourage workers to focus on the “how” of the situation, instead of the goal, or “why,” by, for example, asking them to think about how they would complete a meeting in less time, instead of discussing the meeting’s importance.

If employees need to wait for delayed payment, it could be helpful to have the relevant websites provide information about the bureaucratic steps involved — directing attention to the “how” of the payment.

“For example, medical offices might want to install video monitors with concrete information that distracts from long wait times,” Efrat-Treister said. “The leader of a meeting can focus on getting started and on the agenda rather than focusing on why a partner is late. Any concrete focus that prevents abstract thinking about waiting can be helpful.”

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