The Queuing Mentality

It was Ben&Jerry’s Free Scoop Day on Tuesday, I believe. Did all of you get your free ice-cream? If you didn’t, it might have been due to the snaking queues at all outlets. Students at NUS (not sure if they were related to NUSSU, our Student Union) served the ice-cream right on campus, with assorted flavours like maple syrup and vanilla that they opened at different intervals. Some of you may know (I will not say more) that I managed to get 2 cups of different flavoured ice-cream (1 caramel and 1 strawberry) without spending any time queuing at all. Of course, there were several different factors contributing to my good luck.

First, most of the people were eyeing specific flavours like chocolate and vanilla. Perhaps those were better.

Second, students in NUS, unlike the public, are always rushing, be it for class or anything else. I have noted that once the queue extends up to a certain length, subsequent people are less likely to join the queue and more likely to complain to their friends, “the queue’s too long; forget it”.

Third, I was alone, and sneaking 1 cup of ice-cream is exponentially easier than 2 cups and more.

However, what amazed me was the level of social pressure going on in there, which inspires me to reflect a bit about the mentality of queuing up.

Have you ever seen a free giveaway where people were going “free stuff! free stuff!” and there was no queue? What did you think then? Were you eager to take the thing? Sometimes when you see that people don’t seem to want the freebie, you’re more inclined to think there must be something wrong with it too, and hence also refuse. However, when you see a queue forming, especially if it’s a short one or moving quickly, you’ll be more willing to join it. It’s almost like we want to spend some effort getting the thing, even if we don’t have to spend money.

My mother’s favourite queuing analogy is the buffet table. People tend to come to the buffet table at the same time, and queues miraculously form, with everyone standing patiently behind the first guy as he scoops the rice, leaving all the other dishes intact. Then the first guy moves on to the next dish, and the second person takes the rice, and the third guy passes plates to about 10 people behind him, even though you’re not sure why you can’t just take the plate when you reach it. Of course, when the buffet queues are already well established, it will be rude to cut ahead of people, but in the early stages of queue forming, it is perfectly okay to go to the other side of the table, or even, Heaven forbid, take the dishes out of order. Just take the dessert first, or at least the vegetables before the rice. People will stare, but you should stare back at them. They are the ones who, once again, want to put in the effort of starving a little before getting their food, for no good reason.

When economists say that people are rational and always out to get the best deals for themselves, it really isn’t always the case.

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