Krulwich Wonders...
2:22 pm
Fri December 7, 2012

What To Do When The Bus Doesn't Come And You Want To Scream. An Experiment

Originally published on Fri December 7, 2012 8:54 am

We're in Milan. We're not happy. We're waiting for a bus that doesn't seem to come. Then we see this:

Three different sized sheets of bubble wrap, sized for how long you expect to wait: a little square for three minutes, bigger for five minutes, biggest for 10 — and the sign on top says: "Antistress For Free!!"

Everyone knows what to do. First, you calculate.

Then you choose.

Then you forget all about the bus and spend the time happily popping polyethylene-wrapped air bubbles.

This idea, from mischievous Italian conceptual artist Fra.Biancoshock borrows from the well-known psychological principle of "occupied time," which goes like this:

A few years ago, The New York Times reported that airline passengers in Houston were complaining bitterly about how long they had to wait for their bags at those rotating carousels. Airport officials quickly added baggage handlers to speed up delivery, but though they cut the time to eight minutes (well within the industry average) the complaints didn't stop. People were peeved, because it took one minute to get to baggage claim, and they had to wait around, doing nothing, for the next seven minutes. In other words, 88 percent of their post-flight time was spent waiting.

So what did the airport do? Officials moved the arrival gates farther away from baggage claim and routed bags to the farthest away carousels, making everybody walk six times longer to get to their luggage. That way, by the time people got to the carousels, the bags were already there. No wait, no stress. "Complaints," says the Times, "dropped to near zero."

Time Flies When You're ...

The principle here is sort of like "time flies when you're having fun," but simpler. The basic notion, says MIT researcher Richard Larson, is that time goes by if you are doing something — anything — that occupies you; even if that something is stabbing your finger onto plastic bubbles. "Occupied time" just feels shorter than "unoccupied time." People doing nothing in a line typically overestimate their wait by about 36 percent. Presumably, these Milanese bus passengers will now wait much more happily.

If there's any lingering mystery here, it's the power of bubble wrap. What is it about poking a plastic bubble that's so satisfying, so addictive? For me, I think, it's the sound, the crack. I believe the power of the poke is sound, not touch. You can test this for yourself by going to a virtual bubble wrap site — yes, there are at least two of them, virtual-bubblewrap.com and snapbubbles.com, and they allow you to poke bubble wrap infinitely. You will never be done. The bubbles "refresh."

Click here to get to one, and when you do the deed, you'll hear the pop and then you will either want to — or not want to — do it again.

Me? I wanted to do it again. Which means, if you're like me and you've got a phone with Internet access? From now on every bus stop you wait in, you can summon an infinite supply of bubble wrap and do as the Fra.Biancoshock folks do — poke bubbles till the bus goes beep. And you don't have to go to Milan.

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