Do whole lines hold the line against holding up the line?

I have devoted a lot of time to standing in the security lines in various airports. Usually, I am trying to multitask with something else happening on my phone. A terrible impediment to this multitasking is that the airport line keeps moving. Every time the person in front of me walks forward three steps, I have to pick up my belongings and do the same. I’m in favor of the line moving over not moving, but it would be much better if I could wait until there was ten feet of space, and then bulk-process walking forward in one go. This arrangement would also seem to be better for everyone in the line behind me, who are in roughly the same situation. So why don’t I do it?

I at least imagine social pressure to continue walking forward. If I try waiting a bit longer than usual, I at least imagine that the people behind me are getting kind of restless and thinking I’m a bad line-member, and will soon do something analogous to honking their horns at a driver who isn’t driving at a green light, or simply walk around me. Because the thing I would be doing would look superficially a bit like stopping people from getting to the front of the line as soon as possible. So far, I haven’t actually tried it, probably because it sounds too uncomfortable. 

Perhaps I am imagining all of this. Why would the people behind me care? This change would seem to be neutral to good for all of them. Well, maybe not for the person right behind me. I can imagine the person right behind me caring is because IF it were bad for me to hold up the line, it would be her job to be restless about it at me. And whether or not she cares, she imagines that the people behind her might. Or, she expects me to expect that other people care, and so interprets me as making a social transgression that should rightly be noted, whether or not the consequences are good.

So roughly, I expect maybe everyone feels badly toward me for doing this, because they think the thing I’m doing is antisocial, even though it would immediately make everyone’s lives better. This might seem like an uninteresting window into my own ability to overthink standing in a line, but I think it is more interesting for two reasons. One is that even if I am weird in this way, it is a nice vivid example of a human having overwhelming hesitation to do a thing that seems both selfishly and socially beneficial for fear of secondary social punishment largely from people who would benefit. Which I expect should happen, game theoretically, so it is neat to see sometimes in the wild. 

The other reason is that I have never seen anybody else do this thing which seems both selfishly and socially beneficial, suggesting that something is stopping them (or I have judged the consequences wrongly). That others too perceive holding up the line as antisocial in spite of its consequences being good is my best guess about what. And if it is what is going on with other people, it would be a much better example of people getting stuck in an obviously bad for everyone equilibrium for fear of social retribution.

7 responses to “Do whole lines hold the line against holding up the line?

  1. I had similar thoughts, and I am in fact much slower than typical people in closing the gap that opens up before me, but I do not let it go 10 feet. Maybe 5. If I remember my thinking about why I move to close the gap, I recall suspecting that there is great psychological value in the sense that people are making progress toward their goal. Every step is reassurance that the line is moving, and you’re really going to make it through eventually. Letting big gaps open would destroy those regular jolts of reassurance for everyone behind you. Remember that everyone in a security line had just spent many stationary hours in an airplane. Every step of movement forward at that point feels like a non-negligible reward. And for an impatient person, 5x(waiting a minute and taking two steps) is probably more satisfying than waiting 5 minutes and taking ten steps.

  2. One thing you are failing to consider is that if there is a line with a big gap in it, some people might think the more distant part is not part of the line, and will simply walk past them. I assure you that this will definitely happen if you stand in lines in Italy — if you leave a space, someone will definitely fill it.

    It could be very costly to attempt to enforce the order of the line on someone who breaks it in this way, and the alternative is to impose the cost of an additional person in the line on everyone left in the time.

    Second, there is probably also the fear, likely justified, that if people get into a habit like this, the person who is up next will sometimes be e.g. engaged with their phone, when they should be stepping up for service. This will delay everyone else, and if this is multiplied by many people, there will be a significant addition to the time wasted in line.

    Third, for reasons independent of the above, your plan overall is guaranteed to cause at least a little more standing in line for everyone, as one can see by considering how traffic works.

  3. I think it’s more about the risk that someone would skip in line. It’s everyone’s job to not leave a gap to prevent this.

    A more general thing that is going on is that you are proposing a new policy. If the policy is accepted, you gain status. People will want to avoid this, but they need a reason to oppose your policy. A reason doesn’t have to be good, just good enough that people think the majority may just believe that others believe it. Especially something that “everyone already knows” works, such as the fact that lines seem to move slower.

    A similar but different situation: on cycling paths (Europe), when there is a red light, everyone crams themselves to the front of the line and congestion happens when the light turns green. This is because people have different reaction times and levels of acceleration. A very clear solution is to leave a gap in front of you, so you have enough space to accelerate. (Even if people skip in front of you, you benefit, because you get to accelerate and go around the congestion.) Nobody seems to do it though, because it makes you look like a sucker. You have to compete to signal that you’re not one.

  4. As you state in the first paragraph, you are already bulk-moving, though not in any big bulks. So the question is more of a difference in degree than nature.
    As entirelyuseless commented above, in Italy people would cut in front of you relatively quickly, less so in the US and even less so in Sweden, where I live.
    I suggest you try a gradual approach, wait five feet and if that works without problems, increase it a bit further, thus you can find the maximum stretch in that particular culture.

  5. Hi, I’ve actually done this – but in a car. I was in a fast food drive through and the line was moving exceptionally slow. I turned off my engine to save gasoline. After more than 5 minutes, the car ahead of me moved up one car length. I looked around, assessed the situation, and saw no reason to move: I would gain nothing, the back of the line was not blocking anything. This restaurant did not have a ‘two-stage’ window process, so no one ‘needed’ to move forward. It would be more efficient if no one moved. No one was missing out on anything.

    So, I didn’t. I sat in my car, turned off, with a gap one car length’s ahead of me. I (foolishly) assumed that those behind me would be capable of the same reasoning that I was. You know, like those red dot on the forehead logic puzzles or something.

    The person behind me was a woman around 50 years old. She seemed very concerned that I didn’t move my car up and started talking to me. I believe both of our windows were down or something? I don’t really remember. I assured her that I would move as soon as the next car moved, that I would not be delaying anyone’s acquisition of food, and that I will not be moving until it’s time. She was confused, concerned, kept asking, but eventually wrote me off as a crazy person and stopped talking to me.

    I probably saved 10 cents worth of gasoline, if that, and had to put up with a huge annoyance because of the social signaling. As gamers say, not worth. I never did it again.

    • It’s often good if the restaurant can hear everyone’s order as soon as possible, so that the food can be made as quickly as possible. Car A might need to wait for chicken, but this does not require that Car B be forced to wait to issue their order for hamburger.

  6. Tyrrell McAllister

    Couple thoughts:

    * A line where everyone is leaving a gap is a line that takes up more space for the same number of people. This is bad if there is limited space for the line.

    * The gap is good for everyone because you need to gather your belongings less often, so you go faster. But you’re only going faster relative to your speed if you were gathering you belongs more often. You’re nonetheless going *slower* than what your speed would be if simply kept your belongs gathered the whole time and always moved as soon as possible. Your reasons for not doing this are selfish, so you are violating the norm against slowing down the line for selfish reasons. By leaving a gap, you make it more obvious, perhaps, that you are violating the norm, so you can expect more social punishment (even though you are actually violating the norm less than you would be if you left smaller-but-more-frequent gaps.)


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