When the medium massages perceptions: Personal (vs. public) displays of information reduce crowding perceptions and outsider mistreatment of frontline staff

Published: 21 February 2022

A long wait in a crowded environment can feel like a special kind of purgatory for those waiting their turn, yet front-line workers often bear the brunt of the public’s frustrations. Nurses, restaurant staff, call centre agents and other staff who deal directly with the public in high-stress environments are often mistreated. Known as “outsider mistreatment,” this can range from incivility to full-on abuse, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and other challenges.

New research by Desautels Professor Jean-Nicolas Reyt shows that shaping perceptions of crowded environments could help alleviate the problem. While some organizations provide people with information as they wait, which can improve satisfaction rates, it’s how people receive information that is more important.

Currently, most organizations’ efforts focus on repressing aggression after it has escalated beyond the point where frontline workers can be protected from experiencing abuse. Reyt and his co-researchers suggest working on the environment itself can prevent frustration from escalating.

Drawing upon Marshall McLuhan’s media theories, Reyt explores how different types of media affect perceptions of crowding. He found that when information is provided through a personal medium like a leaflet or smartphone, people perceive a space to be less crowded; they focus more on their personal space and less on those around them. On the other hand, public media like posters can draw attention toward others and increase the perception of overcrowding.

Authors: Jean-Nicolas Reyt, D. Efrat-Treister, D. Altman, C. Shapira, A. Eisenman, and A. Rafaeli

Publication: Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Volume 27, Issue 1, February 2022, Pages 164–178.


Crowded waiting areas are volatile environments, where seemingly ordinary people often get frustrated and mistreat frontline staff. Given that crowding is an exogenous factor in many industries (e.g., retail, healthcare), we suggest an intervention that can “massage” outsiders’ perceptions of crowding and reduce the mistreatment of frontline staff. We theorize that providing information for outsiders to read while they wait on a personal medium (e.g., a leaflet, a smartphone) reduces their crowding perceptions and mistreatment of frontline staff, compared to providing the same information on a public medium (e.g., poster, wall sign). We report two studies that confirm our theory: A field experiment in Emergency Departments (n = 939) and an online experiment simulating a coffee shop (n = 246). Theoretical and managerial implications are discussed. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

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