Last Place Aversion in Queues

51 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2017 Last revised: 29 Jan 2020

Date Written: January 12, 2020


This paper documents the effects of last place aversion in queues and its implications for customer experiences and behaviors, as well as for operating performance. An observational analysis of customers queuing at a grocery store, and four online studies in which participants waited in virtual queues, revealed that waiting in last place diminishes wait satisfaction while increasing the probabilities of switching and abandoning queues, with detrimental implications for queuing systems. The research suggests that last place aversion can lead to maladaptive customer behaviors – switching behaviors that increase wait times, and abandoning when the benefits of waiting are most pronounced. The results indicate that this behavior is partially explained by the inability to make a downward social comparison; namely, when no one is behind a queuing individual, that person is less certain that continuing to wait is worthwhile. Furthermore, this paper provides evidence that queue transparency is an effective service design lever that managers can use to reduce the deleterious effects of last place aversion in queues. When people can’t see that they’re in last place, the behavioral effects of last place aversion are nullified, and when they can see that they’re not in last place, the tendency to renege is greatly diminished. Finally, a system-level experiment, in which pairs of queues were created and analyzed, reveals that when the effects of last place aversion are addressed, overall abandonment decreases, such that with equivalent arrival and service rates, total service provision can be increased.

Keywords: Behavioral operations, queues, reference effects, last place aversion, transparency

Suggested Citation

Buell, Ryan W., Last Place Aversion in Queues (January 12, 2020). Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 18-053, Available at SSRN: or

Ryan W. Buell (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

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