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The psychology of waiting in line to see Star Wars

The psychology of waiting in line to see Star Wars

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You already know whether or not you're going to see The Force Awakens tonight. Ticket sales opened two months ago, and if you live anywhere even remotely populated, the opening show probably sold out two months ago as well. That time-tested fan tradition of camping outside of a movie theater for days or weeks to ensure a spot in the theater is increasingly obsolete in the age of advance sales: you either have a ticket, or you don't.

But people are lining up for The Force Awakens anyway. The phenomenon isn’t as widespread as it was for the 1999 premiere of The Phantom Menace, or even the annual iPhone campouts at Apple stores around the world — most news stories have focused on a line by a charity organization in LA — but people are still eager to be the first in the door. It's easy to justify waiting hours, or even days, on end when you're lining up for something that's going to sell out, but Star Wars is a case where there's little obvious benefit for those in line beyond getting a better seat.

Waiting in line can increase your enjoyment of the movie

As someone who regularly arrives to movie theaters way too early, I'm not going to fault anyone who wants first pick. But the benefits of waiting in line may go beyond seating. Psychologists and marketing researchers have done studies into waiting: why people do it, what makes them happy and unhappy, and how it impacts their reception of whatever's at the end of the line. And results suggest that waiting in line can be a positive.

People camping out may not be aware of it, but waiting can actually increase enjoyment of whatever you're waiting for. That's because, when people don't know if what they're waiting for will be any good, they "make inferences about value from other available sources," Minjung Koo, a consumer behavior researcher at Sungkyunkwan University's Graduate School of Business, writes in an email to The Verge. Her research found that those sources include the length of a line — specifically, the length of people waiting behind you. So waiting for a long time can make you feel good once you look back and see how many people you're in front of; the presence of others suggests that there's a lot of value being placed on whatever you're all queued up for.

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A fan in line for for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood sets up his live stream. (Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images)

"I don't think people will always enjoy the product more," Koo says, "but this effect is more likely to occur when the value for the product is not known [or] ambiguous to them, or at least they are uncertain." And that speaks to the situation with Star Wars. Though fans are excited for the movie, past Star Wars-related traumas have given them good reason to approach The Force Awakens with caution. Since no one in line knows if they're really going to like the new movie, they'll end up drawing information from those around them. People are waiting, so the experience must have been worth waiting for.

Lines can become a social experience

There are also more conscious reasons someone may choose to wait in line for something that only happens on occasion. In a story looking at long waits for trendy food items, Business Insider spoke with MIT operations researcher Richard Larson, who points out that some lines can be celebratory and social. "That queue becomes a festival, not an annoyance," he says, since people aren't waiting for a routine event.

And people will certainly be celebrating. Though many theater chains are banning costumes for security purposes, there's plenty of Star Wars merchandise to go around. One couple is even planning to get married in front of LA's Chinese Theatre.

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Caroline Ritter and Andrew Porters, a couple from Australia who will be married on the day of the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Koo also suspects that when someone chooses to wait in line — rather than waiting because, say, a restaurant is full during a dinner rush — that those waiting are more likely to gain enjoyment from the experience. "I believe in case [where] people wait in line by choice, value increase is more likely to occur," she says. "People may be more likely to justify their choice or efforts by perceiving its value higher."

For proof, see reactions after The Phantom Menace

That's not to say that waiting in line for several days is going to be a constant thrill. Koo says that focusing on the length of people in line ahead of you and the waiting time you have left to go can reduce your eventual enjoyment. It's easy to imagine that other factors, like adverse weather, play into that too. (Even in an unnaturally balmy December, fans in New York City are only today gathering outside theaters.)

It may not be necessary to line up for The Force Awakens, but the question of why someone would do it has a simple answer: they're probably going to enjoy it. Ultimately, whether the movie is any good is going to matter the most, but standing in front of the theater for a few hours — or a few days — might just make it a little bit better. For now, at least.