Line dancing

by Terry Riley on May 2, 2003

You will probably… No, let me start over. You will almost certainly wait in a line at some time on your next trip.

That line might be for a shuttle, a taxi, a hotel room, a sandwich, or a beer. If you travel by air, you will also surely stand in line at the airport. Indeed, standing in line (standing on line, if you are in New Jersey) is so much a part of air travel today that it deserves just as much attention as flying.

Queuing is the standard method of determining service priority for customers in most airports in the world at least in the airports I pass through. Passengers (including this one) seem to prefer it to the biggest- or the strongest- or the loudest-served-first approach. However, standing in line presents certain psychological pickles.

For instance, when multiple lines are available, there is a high probability that a line other than the one you choose will move fastest. The more lines that are available, the greater that probability. And although on average you will select a line that gets you to an agent before half of the other waiting customers, you don’t measure your movement against the average moving line. You measure it against the fastest moving line, and if you’re not in that line, you feel as though you are a victim of bad luck, bad karma, or a conspiracy. (You’re not, but it sure feels that way.)

Another phenomena observed by my professional colleagues who study this sort of thing is that the longer you are in a line, the less likely you are to change to another line, even when you can see an alternate line moving faster. This is indeed curious. Why the heck wouldn’t you jump lines if the one you are in isn’t keeping up with the others around you?

The theory here is one of investment: the longer you are in a line of your choosing, the greater the psychological investment you have in it’s ability to live up to your expectations. Not only that, you fear that if you were to abandon your chosen line, it will start moving again, and you will have lost your investment in it. (Does this sound familiar to those of you who are long-term holders of under-performing stocks? It’s the same theory.)

More recently, queuing up at an airline check-in counter means standing in a single line feeding to all agents. The first-come-first-served approach is quite popular with customers because of what we psychologists call social justice. A single line all but eliminates the issues associated with multiple lines. A single line gives customers the perception of fairness to a point.

There are, however, still issues associated with single-line waiting. For instance, the longer you are in a queue, the more you will begrudge other customers who are able to circumvent the regular line into which you have been shuttled. For example, you are likely to resent passengers who are moved ahead of you because their flights are departing soon. (Where’s the social justice in that?) And as you approach the front of the line, your psychological investment begins to convert to psychological ownership. You are now more protective of your position in the queue and are much more likely to rebuff line-cutters than you would have been farther from the front.

So what can you do to prevent falling victim to the aforementioned queuing anxieties? Not much. I know all about them, and yet I come completely unglued at the slightest hiccup in the application of social justice that single queues are supposed to deliver. Indeed, on a recent trip, after my wife and I stood back-to-back and belly-to-belly for nearly three hours with about 500 other Aloha Airlines customers (many of whom are surely now ex-customers), I came this close to throttling some poor woman and her son who had the misfortune to step in front of us when we were within minutes of reaching the coveted “next in line” position and I know this stuff!

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