Why You Always Choose The Slowest Checkout Line

You’re feeling pretty good about how you slipped into the shortest checkout line at the grocery store just before that woman with the buggy crammed so full of jumbo packs of toilet paper and paper towels that she could barely see over them. Your smugness quickly begins to fade as you realize that the elderly woman at-bat ahead of you managed to grab the one bag of white chocolate covered Christmas pretzels with the little red and green sugar sprinkles from the clearance shelf without a price tag on it. Darn it!

As you stand there for what seems like forever, catching up on the latest gotta-know gossip screaming from the tabloid covers and seriously doubting the claim on the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, boasting in bold yellow letters “only 87  calories,” you notice that the guy with the 12-pack of soda, who was originally behind you in line but brilliantly switched to another line at the first sign of trouble ahead, is breezing out of the store’s automatic double doors already.

“Time for action,” you think to yourself as you jump into the line to the right behind two other people only to overhear the customer checking out haggling over a coupon’s expiration date. Seriously?!

Can you relate? Why does this always, always, always seem to happen? Well, there’s a logical explanation, and it has to do with your brain.

The Answer Is In Your Brain

And no it’s not because you possess a secret psychic ability to zero in on the slowest-moving line. If that were true, wouldn’t some fortunate soul have the juju to pick out the fastest-moving line? I don’t know anybody who feels that they possess this magical power. It’s because your brain remembers infrequent or unusual experiences more readily than common ones. As a matter of fact, it’s because getting stuck in a stalled line is the exception rather than the rule that it stands out in your mind and is quickly recalled.

Studies show that the least likely experience is often the one most likely to be remembered and totally skews our perception and ability to predict the future. In other words, being stuck in a slow-moving line seems common because we pay special attention to the event – because we’re frustrated out of our minds, not because it happens so often. When standing in a line that is moving at a normal pace, there’s nothing to make your brain take notice or remember. It’s just another ordinary trip to the store soon to be forgotten. Ho-hum.

Recollections of stagnant lines quickly come to mind because of the way in which our memories are stored and tagged, not because they’re common. But because you don’t recognize the real reason these instances stand out, you mistakenly assume that they happen more often than they really do.

The Best And The Worst Of Times

Because our brains tend to rely on and recall unusual experiences is one reason why we readily repeat mistakes so often. For example, when thinking about the annual family holiday gathering you host at your home and swear that you’re NEVER going to do again right after it’s over every year, your brain doesn’t pull up a fair representation of previous happenings when the next season rolls around.

The constant bickering between your Mother and Aunt Sue and the exhausting hours of decorating, prepping food, and shopping don’t quickly come to mind. You easily recall that heartfelt conversation you had with your brother late into the night in front of the fireplace, where you giggled and felt closer to him than you had since childhood. You remember the palpable, honey-gold feeling hanging in the air when everyone joined hands around the table before the meal, and each person said what they were thankful for.

So, the next time you’re about to blow a fuse waiting in a checkout line, try to recall the last three times you purchased something. Bet you whizzed right through. Maybe you’re not cursed after all.

Maybe you’re not cursed after all.

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  1. Everyone agrees — we all get in the slowest lane. Yet clearly that is impossible. Love this logical explanation!

  2. I live in Florida. Statistically lines are slower and I have been timing them for years, so I have all of the data to prove that. Joking. I notice that I will take a few bad experiences I have had with audience members in classes I teach and start to think those experience are common. After 25 or more years of being in front of an audience I have had only have had a problem half a dozen time. Regarding the lines in the store, all of the above does apply to my typical thinking. I have found that if I just pop open a kindle app on my phone and read a few lines from Eckhart Tolle I am not bothered by my thinking regarding the line. I have been reading one of his books that way for over a year now and can’t seem to get that far in the book. Seems the lines are not as long as I thought. Surprising to me, and this is a question, is that even though this technique works well for me, I find that often I forget to apply the technique and I get right back into the line management rut and will go along for a few days that way until I remember the technique again as if it were a new novel idea. Why is that?

  3. I love this Debbie, so true, our brains give us selective memories. Now to talk logically to my brain about its limitations! Glad to have found you via Mind Body Green – your story is so inspiring.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Kathy. It’s just another reminder that our reality is determined by what we focus on and remember. We can consciously direct and control this….and we have to in order to stay positive!

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