Last Place Aversion in Queues

44 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2017 Last revised: 5 Mar 2019

Date Written: March 1, 2019


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 field 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 service capacity. 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 capacity can be increased.

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

Suggested Citation

Buell, Ryan W., Last Place Aversion in Queues (March 1, 2019). 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 )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan Hall 429
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-496-6918 (Phone)


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