Cutting in Line
Imagine yourself waiting in line (queue, if you’re British) and someone cuts in front. This obviously upsets and frustrates you. Why should they be in front when you’ve been waiting longer? Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this line jumper?
It’s not just the loss of time and position that are upsetting, but also the violation of a social structure.
A study was done to determine how often, and which people would object to this. When a person intruded into a line, this resulted in an objection 54% of the time. However, when 2 people intruded at once, there were objections 91.3%. The figure shows that 73.3% of objections came from people behind the intruder, and the person directly behind the point of intrusion objected most frequently.
Additional experimenters were brought in to join the line legitimately with instructions to do nothing but stand in line. When the intruder entered the line directly in front of the passive experimenter, there were only objections 25% of the time. When the intruder entered the line in front of two passive experimenters, objections dropped to 5%. These passive line standers significantly influenced how often someone objected to the line jumping.
Then the question is why did a person’s relative position to the intruder affect whether or not they objected? Since everyone behind the intruder incurs the same cost, the objections should be uniformly distributed among the people in line.
There are 3 reasons that may explain this.
- They have to notice it. Those closer to the intrusion will be more likely to see it.
- They have to be aware that this is line jumping and not the more legitimate practice of “placekeeping”. Those further from the intrusion point may not be sure so they will be more hesitant to object.
- Those directly behind the intruder are socially regarded as more responsible for that spot. If everyone defended the space in front of them, line jumping would not be a problem. Hence, it’s their duty to object to those to who jump directly ahead of them.
I also hypothesize another factor is the relative cost to person in line. Those in the back are delayed only a small percentage of their time in line, while the person in front may have to wait twice as long.
So the next time you’re thinking of cutting in line, be aware that it’s about a coin toss whether or not you’ll be ousted, and most likely it’ll be by the person you’re directly stepping in front of. Never line jump at the same time another person is, even though it might seem like you have safety in numbers, it works in the exact opposite way. And lastly, ideally cut in front of someone who is unlikely to object, because your chances of being challenged greatly diminish the more passive people there are directly behind you.
Stanley Milgram is one of my favorite scientists. Psychology students may have learned of the Milgram experiment where subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to others. He also founded “six degrees of separation”, the concept of “familiar strangers”, and wrote about the woman murdered on the streets of New York with 38 onlookers.
I enjoy both classic publications as well as new research, so I’ll try to alternate between the classic and the new in my posts.
Milgram, S., Libety, H. J., Toledo, R, & Wackenhut, J. (1986). Response to Intrusion Into Waiting Lines. Journal of Personality of Social Psychology, 51(4), 683-689.