The Chicago Tribune had an interesting article a week ago on waiting in lines.(“Wait your turn: Good rule in kindergarten, good rule now“.)
The author of the article reports on an incident in which several people cut him in line until he told them to go back to the end of the line. He then continues
Line etiquette is one of the first things we learn as kindergartners. There were dire consequences for disobeying one of the basic rules of society — that you stand patiently behind the person in front of you, no matter how long it takes.
But is this really always the case? One has to acknowledge that there are cases in which people regularly cut in line AFTER asking to do so, i.e., cutting is done by acknowledging the other people in line, yet providing an excuse to cut in line. This is a common practice in airport security queues when people may ask to cut the line to avoid missing their flight. In certain places, this practice is sometimes coined “I just have a short question” to describe people trying to declare to not require too much of the service provider’s time, justifying cutting in line. This phenomenon is also described by Robert Cialidini in his book “Influence” (Thanks Andy Huang for the reference). In this study, a woman pretended that she needed to make copies while there was a line to use the Xerox machine. When asking “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” 94% agreed to let her cut ahead. In the UK, the birthplace of the First-In-First-Out line, similar behavior is observed when in line for train tickets: one may jump to the front of the queue when almost missing their train.
Admittedly, in other situations, as the one described by the author of the Tribune article as well as many other examples of people waiting to buy tickets to sporting events or U2 concerts, this behavior is considered unacceptable and is aggressively banned, as shown in the following clip:
One has to realize that from efficiency point of view, letting people that have lower work requirement (fewer pages to copy, or have only a quick question to ask) be served a head of those with higher work requirement, is the right thing to do. We also realize that social justice requires equal treatment to all tenants of the queue, and thus serving people according to the order in which they arrive may seem the only way in which distributive justice is obeyed.
Prof. Eran Hanany from Tel Aviv university and I have written a paper trying to reconcile the sociology literature making the latter claims, with the efficiency argument, and with the fact that cutting lines is regularly observed, and in many cases even accepted by the waiting line dwellers. In our paper, that uses concepts from queueing theory and game theory we show that cutting in line can actually arise in equilibrium between people in the same community (for example, people that get treated at the same physician, etc), as long as several conditions are satisfied: (i) customers may have legitimate reasons to cut the line (fewer pages to copy, for example, or are in a rush) (ii) all customers may be on both `sides’ of the norm, either have a reason to cut or concede to those with such a reason, which means that even if they are not in a rush now, they know that they may need this “favor” sometimes in the future.
We show that even if the requests cannot be verified before the service (i.e. you don’t know if they have a short question, until they complete the service), such norms may be sustained through community enforcement, if everyone follows the Catholic Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, which in these cases, is also the rational thing to do.
What are the implications? If I am the service manager, I may want to endorse such community building and occasional cutting. If I am a customer, and I believe that I may need such a favor, I should start letting other people cut in lines now. But remember, if you exploit it, it will backfire: