Today I'm boarding a flight to New York for a short break somewhere colder and wetter than it is here. That means queuing. In particular it means that strange, philosophically confusing type of queueing that happens at the gate, even before the gate is open. A queue makes sense when there's some benefit to getting somewhere sooner than other people - to claim some kind of resource first, like tickets or handbags - or when it will save you time to get somewhere sooner so you can get away sooner, as at the Post Office. But for most flights (excluding budget flights), neither of those things apply. So why do we do it? Why is it that as soon as a guy with tasselled shoes and a dead-eyed stare stands up, positions himself near the kiosk and shakes out his copy of Monocle, the rest of us feel a knot forming in our stomach that will only be salved when we too are standing, somewhere in a line behind him, waiting for a seat we're going to get anyway so that we can leave exactly the same time as everyone else?
Ace anthropology blogger Krystal D'Costa has written a fascinating post about this phenomenon, with references to some great studies on our behaviour in public places, where 'ownership' of space is temporary and easily challenged by others - which brings out our territorial instincts. People tend to leave an area more quickly when the space around them is invaded: it's been found that people move more quickly to cross the road when they've been waiting with a group of strangers, and that library patrons will change or move seats if strangers arrive at the same table. Payphone users keep their calls short if there are one or two people waiting to use the phone, but tend to stay on the phone longer if the queue lengthens with the addition of strangers as they talk. This kind of behaviour helps to explain our predilection for pointless queuing:
Though seats are paid for in advance, air travel passengers are preparing to navigate a public territory that they will have to share for a given period of time. And while everyone will definitely have a seat, there may be psychological benefits to being able to settle yourself into your seat—and claim a convenient space in the overhead bin if necessary—before your seatmates arrive. There is no shortage of the resource (seats), but there is no overabundance either, and passengers may be preparing to establish the boundaries that will define their space for the duration of the flight. The very act of seeing others prepare in this case, will compel others to act similarly...So now that all these passengers are standing around the attendant kiosk with their carry-ons and boarding passes in hand, perceptions of time change. Though there may not actually be delays, anticipation for the event (boarding the plane) increases.
There is also, of course, our simple herd instinct to take into account. When our mind is on other things (like worries about the flight) we tend to outsource some of our immediate decision-making to others, and just do what they do.
Right, I've got to start packing.
Link to D'Costa's post.