What is Idleness Aversion?

Have you ever had to wait for a really slow elevator? 

It seems to take forever, right? 

In post-war America, high-rise buildings had this problem for years. People would complain because the elevators were too slow. 

But instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars to make the elevators faster, these high-rise office buildings and apartments began putting mirrors inside elevators. Now, people could check out their hair and makeup while they waited. 

The complaints about slow elevators? 

They disappeared overnight.

Elevator mirror

Source: Adobe Stock

Why? It’s down a psychological principle known as Idleness Aversion


What is Idleness Aversion?

This principle says that people are happier when they’re busier. Even if we’re forced to be busy, we still prefer it to just waiting around. Researcher Chris Hsee put it this way

“People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy.”


Real-World Examples of Idleness Aversion

How can designers and marketers apply this principle? Here are three examples: 


1. Entertain like Disney 

Known for their long lines, Disney Parks spends millions making waiting in line fun. Disney World’s queues have puzzles, music, and interactive designs. 

For example, when you’re waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, you can play ghostly musical instruments, see books that fly from their shelves, and even solve a murder mystery while you wait.

You can watch a tour of this fascinating queue in the video below:  

Click to play

As MIT professor Dick Larson, who studies the psychology of standing in line, put it:

“You might wait 45 minutes for an eight-minute ride at Disney World, but they’ll make you feel as if the ride has started while you’re still in line.”

Disney are masters of “queuing psychology” — they know that you can’t just keep people entertained in line. People also have to feel like it’s moving. That’s why Disney hides the length of its lines by snaking them through the landscape or wrapping them around the sides of buildings.

That way, you never look at the hundreds of people in front of you and feel discouraged because of how long you think the wait is going to take. Instead, you’re entertained by your surroundings, not staring at the massive queue and calculating how long it’s going to take.

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2. Engage like Netflix

Netflix’s autoplay feature gets your mind off finding something to watch, and instead gets you engaging with new shows and movies (even if it’s not by choice). Their experience forces you to watch trailers that auto-play when you dwell on the title.

Netflix Autoplay

Source: @ArfMeasures on Twitter

Spending hours debating what to watch becomes a lot easier when you’re entertained by clips and trailers, even if the tradeoff between annoyance and engagement wasn’t always worth it. 

Thankfully you can now disable this feature, but Netflix clearly saw a benefit from the years when it was the default experience. 


3. Misdirect like Uber

Waiting for your Uber — especially if you’re visiting a new town or its raining outside — can seem to take forever. It can be a stressful situation, and Uber knows that it has an outsized bearing on how good or bad a user rates their experience. 

So Uber’s behavioral science team experimented with keeping users entertained with a live car animation that shows you where your driver is in real-time.

Uber experience

Source: Uber

Idleness Aversion: The Bottom Line

Designs that employ Idleness Aversion are all around us — from crayons and coloring mats for kids at restaurants to progress bars on websites, we’re surrounded by little things that entertain, engage, and misdirect us from the pain of waiting.

And while they can sometimes allow for a much better experience — like in Disney World’s entertaining queues — they can also make for a much worse experience — like Netflix’s much-hated autoplay.

If you want to apply Idleness Aversion to your experience, start by asking yourself:

  • Where in our experiences are there moments of boredom or psychological pain? Do users or customers need to wait while something is done or for something to become available?
  • How can we best address this psychological pain? Can we entertain, engage, or misdirect?
  • Do our ideas to apply Idleness Aversion add value to the customer (like Disney or Uber) or annoy them (like Netflix)?

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