Queues can be found all over the place, at sports events, festivals, on roads and in your local coffee shop. We’ve all spent enough time in them, but the likelihood is that most of us don’t acknowledge how complex they really are.


They seem simple, right?

In fact, the queue is a very intricate phenomenon. They are micro-systems as Leo Mann, author of Queue Culture: The Waiting Line as a Social System’, puts it, operating through both overt and covert behaviour of those that occupy them.

Let’s take a deeper look into the principles of queuing.

Firstly, how do queues even start?

They start when the demand for a particular product, service or event exceeds its possible supply at a given point in time.

Why do we form queues when this happens?

The answer is linked to our intrinsic inclination for fairness. Even from a very young age, desire for fairness can be seen in humans, suggesting it is an innate tendency. This means that we favour a waiting system that works on a first come first serve basis.

This sentiment is so strong that it overrides other factors in the queuing process, such as waiting time. Most people would rather wait longer with the promise that the queue would be fair, than have an unfair queue with the possibility of shorter waiting times.

How do queues maintain themselves once they have started?

Queues are self-policing systems. In order to maintain fairness, cutting in is not accepted – a rule that is acknowledged by everyone within the queue. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

What’s more surprising – and a greater indication of the extent to which we desire fairness – is the fact that we even get irritated at people cutting in behind us. Everyone polices the queue, even if it doesn’t actually affect them directly.

What keeps us in the queues?

There are two elements involved in keeping us in the queue. The first is the role of the supplier – the people providing what we are queuing for. The second is ourselves.

Firstly, suppliers use psychological techniques to ensure we stay in the queue for their product or service. At events they may document the queue, interviewing a few customers for their social media to give you a feeling of fame and belonging when you’re in the queue. Theme parks provide estimated waiting times to give a sense of control over the queue – though too much information may deter new customers from joining the queue. Doughnut masterminds Krispy Kreme tease customers by letting you watch the doughnuts being made, instilling a fear of missing out if you leave.

Second, we keep ourselves in the queue through our own bias. As the number of people behind us in the queue increases, we become more likely to stay – regardless of whether we are moving closer to the front. This was discovered by Rongron Zhou and Dilip Soman in, ‘Looking Back: Exploring the Psychology of Queuing and the Effect of the Number of People Behind’. The reason being that we begin to compare our position with the increasing number of people in less fortunate positions behind us, rather than those better off in front of us. This is completely irrational, but that’s humans for you.

Next time you find yourself waiting in line – patiently or not – for that ride or for your morning coffee be wise to the principles of psychology in the queue and see you if you can identify them in operation.


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