Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cutters go to the back of the line

Let me guess something about you - you don't like it when people cut in line in front of you when they didn't wait their turn. Maybe it isn't just the line at the store or at the DMV or at the amusement park (have you ever just wanted to throw your cotton candy at them?), but it is also who gets the promotion, who gets the job interview, which of your peers is doing better, which students get the attention.

Tom Vanderbilt says that it is not only a phenomenon that happens as you watch cars go by to get to the front of the line while you patiently wait in the middle (from Traffic, 42):

What really seems to rankle us is seeing people get ahead. This is why, says Richard Larson, director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading authorities on queues, any number of companies - from banks to fast-food chains - have switched from systems in which multiple lines feed multiple servers to a single, serpentine line... Why? Social justice, says Larson. "If you have the single serpentine line, you're guaranteed first come, first served. If you have the multiple lines, you have what happens at McDonald's at lunchtime. You have the stress of joining a line with high likelihood that somebody who's joined a queue next to you will get served before you. People get really irritated with that."

If you can do something about it, maybe it is better to think about the system, or any system that you can do something about, and to figure out who needs to get what. How can we optimize it for everyone? After daydreaming about the proper punishment for those people, figure out what you can do about it in situations that really matter.

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