Get in Line

In my opinion, the enjoyment of music festivals and other large events, can come down to your experiences with lines just as much as with the line-up; you line up to get to the festival grounds, you line up to get your entrance bracelet, then line up to go through security, then line up to get your drink tickets and reusable mug, then line up to get drinks, then line up to get food, then line up to use the porta-potties, and repeat as needed. And at each one of those lining up (or queuing) opportunities, this will invariably happen.

(from Reddit)

I am a staunch believer in sticking with the decision I have made, even when I see other lines moving much more quickly, and it turns out that regardless of which line I choose, those other lines probably are faster. This cruel fact comes from the work of queuing theory. Work in queuing theory has shown that having people line up in a number of separate lines with several different servers (like at the grocery store) is significantly slower than having one long winding line with multiple servers (like at the bank).

But as is often the case, science doesn’t always translate into practice, and in this case the obstacle is ourselves. Given the choice between a slow-moving short line, and a fast moving long one, even if the wait times are identical, we tend to choose the short line. No doubt part of this is that we like to feel that we have a certain level of control and choice over our wait time, and that we can beat the system, we can’t. Also the perception of a long line is often enough to scare us off and discourage us from even participating in the line, a behaviour queue theorists refer to as balking, which has slowed the adoption of single line systems by many businesses.

There are three factors of human behaviour/psychology that trump the science of queuing theory and help explain why we choose the short line: 1) we get bored when we wait in line (fun fact: Americans spend ~37 billion hours each year waiting in line!), 2) we hate it when we expect a short wait and then get a long one, and 3) we really hate it when someone shows up after us but gets served first. These factors can result in “queue rage” which can last for weeks after the incident, (I am still fuming about missing 3/4 of the Arkells show while waiting in line at the Sleeman Centre well over a year ago), and even result in violence. The first factor is overcome in grocery store queues by having impulse items, magazines, and other distractions available, because even though we are still waiting we perceive occupied time as being shorter than unoccupied time, basically, time flies when you are reading tabloid headlines. The second factor can be overcome with posted expected wait times. We tend to be more patient when we are given an idea of how long we will be waiting, however this can backfire if the wait times are longer than advertised (more queue rage). The third factor really should support the widespread adoption of a single line, as it is fair and ensures a first come first served approach. But for as much as we hate it when people in other lines who showed up after us get served first, we also really love it when we show up late and get served first.