Our Brains Hate Waiting So We Sped Up Everything Else

Sidewalk rage, road rage and anger at slow-loading web pages are all part of our evolutionary inheritance

fast brain
David Aubrey/CORBIS

Going slow tends to drive us crazy.

Sometimes impatience (balanced with patience) is a good thing. Getting fed up while waiting for a result can spur us to change activities, pick a different berry patch to forage or hunt somewhere else. However, as Chelsea Wald writes for Nautilus, the balance has been skewed in modern times:

The fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough—or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer even plays tricks on us, stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay.

Take Leon James, a psychology professor who developed the Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale to help assess just how intense some people’s "sidewalk rage" can get. He used to be an aggressive walker. When he walked down the street, the Wall Street Journal reports, he would "square his shoulders and walk straight ahead, bumping into people and thinking it was his right; he was the one walking properly." It was only after his wife was able to convince him that he was wrong—he was going too fast, rather than others too slow—that he changed his behavior. (Now, the WSJ reports, he tries to walk around people.)

This sort of angry impatience, Wald argues, is becoming pervasive in our culture. Decades of research indicate that we now expect everything to happen faster. For example, not only do people in different cities and cultures walk at different speeds but since the 1990s walkers around the world have picked up the pace—by up to 10 percent, one psychologist estimates. Not that long ago, we were happy with a four-second load time for web pages. But now waiting longer than a second for a web page to load seems intolerable. 

One way to slow the sometimes frantic pace is to look for ways to remain calm. When under stress, our brains stretch time. Wald writes:

Time warps because our experiences are so intense. Every moment when we are under threat seems new and vivid. That physiological survival mechanism amplifies our awareness and packs more memories than usual into a short time interval. Our brains are tricked into thinking more time has passed.

So it’s a cycle: Expecting things to happen quickly makes us impatient, when things take longer we get angry and getting angry makes things seem like they take forever. We’re all just getting faster and filled with rage. 

Wald testifies that changing your thoughts can change this cycle and maybe slow the world down a bit. Instead of getting irate at a slow-moving friend, she focused on positive things—her friend’s sense of humor and past times together. It worked to calm Wald’s sidewalk rage. But as soon as they got to the restaurant, she writes: "I begin quietly raging at the server, the kitchen, the return tram. I’m even raging at my rage; it feels like it’s lasting forever."

Deep breaths, Wald, deep breaths.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.