What time is worth: Smartphones reduce value people place on wait time

PULLMAN, Wash. — The value that people place on their time while waiting is significantly reduced in the age of smartphones, according to a recent experimental study.

In the study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, researchers at Washington State University asked participants how much money it would take for them to wait in a nearly empty room for 30 minutes under various conditions.4 people stand a few feet apart in line, all staring at their smartphones.

They found that people required much more compensation to wait without a smartphone than with one. The finding could have wide range of implications on the economic analysis of public infrastructure projects.

“How people value time is important in all sorts of projects around the country,” said corresponding author Joe Cook, an associate professor in WSU’s School of Economic Sciences. “Anything that saves the public time is a major component in what projects get approved, from public transportation to roads and bridges.”

The study tested four conditions with varied access to smartphones and entertainment. It included 82 adults recruited from the communities of Pullman, Wash. and Moscow, Idaho.

Subjects asked for the lowest monetary reimbursement in the first condition, with full access to their smartphones. The second condition provided them with a Bluetooth speaker and an FM radio, but with their phone locked away. They could listen to music or podcasts, but not surf the web, look at social media, or watch videos. This condition mimicked access to handsfree smartphone entertainment while driving. Subjects asked for 24% more to wait in this condition, compared to having full access to their phone.

The third condition, waiting in a room with only an FM radio, reflected the experience of driving before the advent of smartphones and required a 48% increase in compensation. The fourth, locked in a room with nothing but a few economics textbooks, led to people requiring 79% more compensation.

New or expanded road projects often factor in how much time it will save drivers, with value of time a major consideration, Cook said. But with smartphones now providing new entertainment options, like podcasts, that time factoring may need to change.

Joe Cook
Joe Cook

People have been speculating that the value of time has been decreasing with assimilation of smartphones into people’s lives; Cook wanted to investigate. He first noticed the difference when his flight was delayed on the tarmac while traveling.

“I looked around expecting everyone to be really annoyed,” Cook said. “But mostly they just pulled out their phones and didn’t bat an eye. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the annoyance would have been felt more acutely. Watching videos or surfing the web makes waiting less painful.”

The biggest surprise for Cook and his co-author, WSU graduate student Mary Tiana Randriamaro, was that there was no difference in how much people valued their time based on age. They thought participants under age 25, who have grown up with smartphones, would miss their devices more and require more compensation to be without it.

“We probably focused more on the idea of what people grew up with,” Cook said. “But people adapted to smartphones really quickly. We didn’t see any difference between our age groups.”

Most participants were over 25, he said.

Next steps in this area of study include replicating the study with a wider, more diverse participant pool and varying the length of time they’re asked to wait. Cook also said it would be helpful to look at how people use that waiting time.

“Are they working or watching funny cat videos?” he said. “What benefits come from being productive or just not being bored? Follow-up work on those kinds of topics would be useful.”