Jumping Queues

The phenomenon is well-known.  There are one or more servers, but there are many more customers who need to be served.  So the customers queue up according to their order of arrival in order to be served.  First come, first serve.  But some customer jumps the queue and wants to be served first.  What happens now?

Foreigners in China complain about the brazenness of Chinese queue jumpers, especially the little old ladies with sharp elbows.  Observe:

(Shanghai Star)  Crowds and queue jumping.  By Hyewook Cheong.  May 3, 2001.

China has a population of about 1.3 billion but, as the country covers a vast area in the Asian continent, one seldom feels crowded in by people in most parts of China.  

But if you have a sudden urge to experience the push and pull of dozens of people, head toward any MacDonald's branch in China and you will surely get what you were looking for.  MacDonald's must be one of the most popular fast-food chains in China, judging by the way it is always packed.

At an average MacDonald's branch, there are about five to six people who stand behind the counter taking orders. But in front of the cash registers, there are about eight to nine "moving" queues.  They swerve and swing depending on whichever queue is the fastest.

And things get worse the closer you get to the counter. Besides the people cutting in from left and right, you also have to watch out for people who come from behind with their arms outstretched with cash in hand.

Though this may mean good business for MacDonald's, one can't help but think that the long, chaotic struggle in ordering meals defeats the purpose of a fast-food restaurant as it takes what seems like ages to get a burger.

But this is not a phenomenon only found at MacDonald's - in fact, this occurs in most places one needs to queue. Post offices, supermarket check-outs, bus and train stations...  Despite this, not many people seem to take offense or confront people who cut in in front of them.  Perhaps it is because more people are tolerant of such behaviour that they turn a blind eye toward jumping queues here.

Everyone wants to get their food or board a bus as soon as possible and standing in line may seem pointless when one could just speed ahead of others. This may be true and, yes, you may get what you want done sooner. But consider this before you reach over the person in front of you and stick out that 10 kuai note - would you be as understanding if you were next in line? 

The question about tolerance of queue jumpers has in fact been studied.  I quote from James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds (p. 95).  

Milgram sent his intrepid graduate students out into the world, this time with instructions to jump lines at offtrack betting parlors and ticket counters.  About half the time the students were able to cut the line without any problems.  But in contrast to the subway -- where, when people refused to give up their seat they generally just said no or even refused to answer -- when people did try to stop the line cutting, their reaction was more vehement.  Ten percent of the time they took some kind of physical action, sometimes going so far as to shove the intruder out of the way (though usually they just tapped or pulled on their shoulders).  About 25 percent of the time they verbally protested and refused to let the jumper in.  And 15 percent of the time the intruder just got dirty looks and hostile stares.

Interestingly, the responsibility for dealing with the intruder fell clearly on the shoulders of the person in front of whom the intruder had stepped.  Everyone in line behind the intruder suffered when he cut the line, and people who were two or three places behind would sometimes speak up, but in general the person who was expected to act was the one who was closest to the newcomer.  (Closest, but behind: people in front of the intruder rarely said anything).  Again, this was not a formal rule, but it made a kind of intuitive sense.  Not only did the person immediately behind the intruder suffer most from the intrusion, but it was also easiest for him to make a fuss without disrupting the line as a whole.

That fear of disruption, it turns out, has a lot to do with why it's easier to cut a line, even in New York, than you might expect.  Milgram, for one, argued that the biggest impediment to acting against line jumpers was the fear of losing one's place in line.  The line, is like the first-come, first-serve rule, a simple but effective mechanism for coordinating people, but its success depends upon everyone's willingness to respect the line's order.  Paradoxically, this sometimes means letting people jump in front rather than risk wrecking the whole queue.  That's why Milgram saw an ability to tolerate line jumpers as a sign of the resilience of a queue, rather than of its weakness.

Here is an example of chaos in which nobody wins.

(The Standard)  Mahjong set lose their cool.  By Sylvia Hui.  August 24, 2004.

A promotion involving "crystal'' mahjong gift sets turned to chaos when thousands of people who had queued for hours to collect the pieces stampeded when it started to rain.  Scuffles broke out on Sunday as the crowd harassed queue-jumpers outside the China Resources Building, Wan Chai.

As the rain came down, order collapsed with some jumping the queue and others scrambling for cover. In the melee, people were pushed to the ground and at least three women who complained of feeling unwell were sent to hospital.  Several children were separated from their parents and police were called in to restore order. 

Milgram's line-cutting experiment was a follow-up on a more famous subway experiment, in which graduate students asked people in subway trains to yield their seats.  From Surowiecki:

They all reported similar results: about half the time, just asking convinced people to give up their seat.  But they also discovered something else: the hard part of the process wasn't convincing the people, it was mustering the courage to ask them in the first place.  The graduate students said that when they were standing in front of a subject, "they felt anxious, tense, and embarrassed."  Much of the time, they couldn't even bring themselves to ask the question and they just moved on.  Milgram himself described the whole experiment as "wrenching."  The norm of first-come, first-serve was so ingrained that violating it required real labor.

The point of Milgram's experiment, in a sense, was that the most successful norms are not just externally established and maintained.  The most successful norms are internalized.

... authority had only limited reach over the way citizens dealt with each other.  In authority's stead, certain conventions -- voluntarily enforced, as Milgram showed, by ordinary people -- play an essential role in helping large groups of people to coordinate their behavior with each other without coercion, and without requiring too much thought or labor.

The relevant meaning of the word 'convention' is this one:

A practice or procedure widely observed in a group, especially to facilitate social interaction; a custom: the convention of shaking hands.

The important thing to note that a convention is not hard-wired into the brain via inherited genetic traits.  It is an arbitrary social custom which is not necessarily universal.  Thus, jumping queues is an internalized convention in some places, but it may mean less or even nothing elsewhere.  Just like shaking hands may be a convention in some places, but it was like the kiss of death in Greater China during the SARS period.

(New York Times)  'Excuse Me. May I Have Your Seat?'.  By Michael Luo.  September 14, 2004.

Thirty years ago, they were wide-eyed, first-year graduate students, ordered by their iconoclastic professor, Dr. Stanley Milgram, to venture into the New York City subway to conduct an unusual experiment.

Their assignment: to board a crowded train and ask someone for a seat. Then do it again. And again.

"As a Bronxite, I knew, you don't do this," said Dr. Jacqueline Williams, now an assistant dean at Brooklyn College. Students jokingly asked their professor if he wanted to get them killed.

But Dr. Milgram was interested in exploring the web of unwritten rules that govern behavior underground, including the universally understood and seldom challenged first-come-first-served equity of subway seating. As it turned out, an astonishing percentage of riders - 68 percent when they were asked directly - got up willingly.

Quickly, however, the focus turned to the experimenters themselves. The seemingly simple assignment proved to be extremely difficult, even traumatic, for the students to carry out.

"It's something you can't really understand unless you've been there," said Dr. David Carraher, 55, now a senior scientist at a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Kathryn Krogh, 58, a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Va., was more blunt: "I was afraid I was going to throw up."

More than three decades later, the memories are still surprisingly vivid, testimony perhaps to the trauma of their experience and an unintended postscript to a rare study on the delicate subway order.

Two weeks ago, a pair of reporters who set out to replicate the experiment struggled with similar inhibitions. The incredulous reactions they got from riders were the same as well. But they also stumbled upon convincing proof that New Yorkers have mellowed with time. The results were far from scientific, but, remarkably, 13 out of 15 people gave up their seats.

"Uh, O.K., " said one man, holding hands with his girlfriend, before getting up. "I've never heard that one before."

A construction worker sneered to a male reporter, "If you were a woman, then. . . ." He got up anyway.

Another woman, who sprang up from her seat, twice asked the reporter, who kept her eyes fixed on the ground, if she was O.K.

Dr. Milgram, who died in 1984 at age 51, got the idea for the experiment from a conversation with his mother-in-law, who complained to him one day that no one had offered her a seat on the subway. "It occurred to me: What would have happened had she asked for a seat?" he said in a 1974 interview in the magazine Psychology Today.

He suggested the experiment to one of his graduate student classes, but the students recoiled. Finally, one student, Ira Goodman, volunteered to try it with a partner. But instead of coming back after 20 trials as he had promised, he returned with only 14. When Dr. Milgram asked him what had happened, he said that it was just too difficult.

Dismissing his students' fears, Dr. Milgram set out to try it himself. But when he approached his first seated passenger, he found himself frozen.

"The words seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge," he said in the interview.

Retreating, he berated himself: 'What kind of craven coward are you?"

A few unsuccessful tries later, he managed to choke out a request.

"Taking the man's seat, I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request," he said. "My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish."

From his own discomfort, Dr. Milgram sensed import. He had garnered notoriety several years earlier for a series of experiments in which test subjects were asked to administer what they thought were powerful electric shocks to fellow students. A stunning number did, a revelation in the power of authority. But Dr. Milgram had developed a new interest in the psychology of urban life, especially in invisible social dictates that help maintain order but go largely unnoticed until they are violated.

The following semester, he asked 10 members of his class on experimental social psychology to complete the experiment. The students descended into the subway in teams of two for support, polling an even number of men and women, and within those groups, an even number of people who were under 40 years old and over 40 years old. While one person asked, the other acted as an observer. They were responsible for 14 trials each, and the questions were phrased in four different ways.

In the first version, the experimenter said simply: "Excuse me. May I have your seat?" Here, 41 riders were asked, and 68 percent of the time people gave up their seats or sidled over.

In one variation, the experimenter pretended his or her partner was a stranger and asked loudly: "Excuse me. Do you think it would be all right if I asked someone for a seat?" The partner was to feign confusion. After repeating the question, the experimenter turned to ask the subject. The percentage who agreed dropped to 42 percent.

In another variation, the experimenter, holding a paperback mystery novel, asked: "Excuse me. May I have your seat? I can't read my book standing up." With this request, the percentage fell to 38 percent.

The final method involved the experimenter handing a note with the seat request written on it to the rider. With this approach, the percentage held at about 50 percent.

Those tension-filled subway rides in the spring of 1972 are still easily recalled by many of Dr. Milgram's former students scattered across the country.

"I really did feel sick to my stomach," said Dr. Krogh, remembering her first attempt. "Afterwards, I thought, 'I wonder if that wasn't helpful because the person must have thought: "This person looks sick. She needs the seat." ' "

Dr. Carraher remembered leaning over and asking an elderly woman for her seat. The woman snapped: "If I were standing and you were sitting, I think it'd be very reasonable to ask you for your seat, but I'm not going to give you my seat."

The woman's neighbor, a man, was so embarrassed for Dr. Carraher that he immediately offered him his seat instead. Another man lectured him on his manners.

Dr. Maury Silver, 59, now a visiting professor at Yeshiva University, was only auditing the class at the time, so he refused to take part in the experiment. Later, he and another student of Dr. Milgram's, Dr. John Sabini, who went on to become the co-author of a paper on the experiment, were teaching a class together and asked their students to try the subway experiment themselves. Dr. Sabini, however, reminded his partner that he had skipped the experiment the first time around. Dr. Silver, who described himself as "one of the more embarrassable people on earth," resolved to try it at least once.

"I start to ask for the man's seat," he said. "Unfortunately, I turned so white and so faint, he jumps up and puts me in the seat."

Dr. Harold Takooshian, another former student, said he kept feeling there was something unethical in what he was doing, almost deceiving riders, so he developed a card that he would slip to them afterward that explained they had just participated in a psychology experiment. It also made the task slightly easier.

Now a professor at Fordham University, he said the experiment showed him how potentially explosive the cramped confines can be.

"Milgram's idea exposed the extremely strong emotions that lie beneath the surface," he said. "You have all these strangers together. That study showed how much the rules are saving us from chaos."

As for why door blockers, pole huggers and other egregious violators of subway etiquette do not experience the same opprobrium, perhaps another study is in order.