Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cutting Comments

Neal emailed to let me know about Tasty Research, a blog that summarizes and comments on recent articles, mostly from the fields of sociology and psychology. Great stuff; I’ve added it to the blog roll.

One recent post discusses line-cutting norms – specifically, who is most likely to object when someone cuts? The research shows that when someone objects (which occurs 54% of the time), the objector is the next person behind the intruder 73% of the time. What explains the pattern?
1. They have to notice it. Those closer to the intrusion will be more likely to see it.

2. They have to be aware that this is line jumping and not the more legitimate practice of “placekeeping”. Those further from the intrusion point may not be sure so they will be more hesitant to object.

3. Those directly behind the intruder are socially regarded as more responsible for that spot. If everyone defended the space in front of them, line jumping would not be a problem. Hence, it’s their duty to object to those to who jump directly ahead of them.
I would collapse the third reason into the first two. The question is why the person behind the intruder is considered responsible for objecting. Other norms include (a) having the person in front of the intruder object, (b) having the second person behind the intruder object, (c) having everyone object, etc. But the first-behind-the-intruder rule utilizes both local knowledge (that person is most likely to notice and most likely to recognize legitimate “place-keeping”) and self-interest (that person has more to gain by objecting than those in front of the intruder). The blog’s unknown author adds:
I also hypothesize another factor is the relative cost to person in line. Those in the back are delayed only a small percentage of their time in line, while the person in front may have to wait twice as long.
I think he’s onto something, but I wouldn’t put it in terms of the delay as a percentage of time in line. Why should the percentage matter, when the added delay is the same for everyone? I would instead look at time discounting. If there are x people in front of the intruder, the first person behind the intruder will experience the added delay x + 1 periods in the future, whereas the second person will experience a delay x + 2 periods in the future. Given that people discount future costs more when they are further in the future, the second person will (other things equal) experience a smaller marginal disutility from the added wait. Put this factor in the “utilizing self-interest” column.

However, it’s also possible that there could be increasing marginal disutility from waiting time. This is especially true if, say, the line is for a product like concert tickets that could run out. The chance that the intrusion will cause you to miss out on a ticket is greater for the person farther from the front of the line. (Extreme example: If there are 5 tickets, and the intruder cuts right after the third person in line, the fourth person experiences only a delay, but the fifth person is denied a ticket.) This leads me to wonder if the usual first-behind-the-intruder norm is more likely to break down in situations where the product is likely to run out. I wonder what line-cutting norms were like in the Soviet Union?

Analytical questions aside, what I like best about this study is how it was (apparently) conducted: by having experimenters cut into real-life lines at grocery stores and other locations, and then recording how the unknowing subjects – the other people in line – responded.


Gil said...

Also, instead of tickets running out, time could be running out for the event to start.

And, how are you determining when the delay happens? If it's when the cutter is serviced, it's at the same time for everybody. If it's when people behind him would otherwise have been served, then it's further into the future as you describe. But, I'm not sure most people would think of it that way.

Anonymous said...

This got me to thinking. I cannot remember anyone ever cutting into line in front of me. How common is it?