Do You Challenge Queue-Jumpers and Line-Cutters?

Queuing (or ‘standing in line’ for Americans) is time wasted, part of our lives flushed down the toilet.


Queuing (or ‘standing in line’ for Americans) is time wasted, part of our lives flushed down the toilet. Just like other everyday activities – grocery shopping, teeth brushing and washing-up – queuing is necessary but tedious, hard to take pleasure in.

This is a shame because over a lifetime we spend about four years queuing (hopefully not all in one go). That’s more, on average, than we spend shopping, exercising, cooking or driving. What we need is a way of coping with queuing, a distraction of some kind. One answer comes from psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his work on obedience in social psychology: study the queue itself.

Excuse me, I’d like to get in here

Milgram considered the queue a classic example of how groups of people automatically create social order out of chaos. But this social order can be fragile when faced with chaotic threats, like that of the queue-jumper. Suddenly we have a social psychology experiment on our hands: how fragile is this spontaneous social order and what will people do to protect it? In the answer to this seemingly mundane question may lie an important truth about our behaviour in groups.

Early research found that people were strangely reluctant to challenge queue-jumpers, suggesting our spontaneous social order is fairly week. But this wasn’t a properly designed experiment and so Milgram set about testing people’s reactions to queue-jumpers using a real-life experimental study.

Milgram had assistants travel around New York to 129 different queues in betting shops, railway stations and elsewhere. At each one his experimental assistant followed a strict protocol laid down in advance:

  1. Enter queue at between the third and fourth person.
  2. Say in a neutral tone: “Excuse me, I’d like to get in here.”
  3. Step into line and face forward.
  4. Only leave the queue when someone admonished them or after 1 minute, whichever was sooner.

People’s responses were quite meek. On only 10% of occasions were queue-jumpers physically ejected from the line. And on only about half the occasions did anybody in the line do anything at all. Anything at all included, in this case, dirty looks or gestures as well as actual verbal objections. This seems remarkably low.

Hey, there’s a line here you know!

Milgram also used two variations to find out under what conditions people would protest at queue-jumpers. The first variation was the number of intruders. Milgram found that doubling the number of jumpers almost doubled the rate of objections, which then rocketed up to 91%.

A second variation involved introducing a ‘buffer’ person. This was another experimental confederate who was already stood in the queue legitimately. The queue-jumper did their jumping in front of them. The introduction of a buffer was to examine what people would do when they were two or three places back in the queue behind the jumper. The results showed that increasing the buffer decreased the number of objections. When there were two people between them and the queue-jumper, objections dropped to just 5%.

Too scared to question the queue-jumper?

Milgram’s most interesting insights are his attempts to explain why people don’t intervene. Are people just too scared? Not necessarily:

  1. Group formation is difficult when people are stood one behind the other, all facing in the same direction. Consequently social order is weak.
  2. Challenging queue-jumpers could mean losing your own place in the line.
  3. Social systems have to tolerate some deviance otherwise they may quickly break down, i.e. a fight may start and everyone is delayed while it is sorted out.
  4. The line is co-opting those who threaten it by tacitly accepting them so that they gain an interest in the queue and the queue becomes stronger.

Milgram thought queue-jumping is tolerated as long as it doesn’t threaten the line too much. People want to avoid social disorder because their own interests (getting served) are tied up in an orderly queue.

Coping with queuing

So the next time you’re in a queue or spot a queue-jumper think about Milgram’s study and how the queue might reflect society at large. If that fails it’s fun to imagine the look on people’s faces as Milgram’s brave assistants pushed in to queues all over New York, while another watched and recorded people’s reactions.

Over to you: what strange behaviour have you spotted in queues and do you ever queue-jump or challenge queue-jumpers?

[Image credit: butterflysha]

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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