George Mikes, a Hungarian-born British author, once wrote “an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”
Whether it’s at the bank or the grocery store, waiting in line is a staple of British life. What, then, would Brits make of Danish researchers who suggest the age-old discipline of “first come, first served” is a waste of time?
In their study, published as a working paper with the University of Southern Denmark, the researchers describe the “first come, first served” principle as a “curse.” For the study, they consider a purely theoretical situation in which people could line up at any time when a facility opens, like boarding an airplane.
The problem with “first come, first served” is it incentivizes people to arrive early, which researchers say results in people waiting for the longest period of time. When this incentive is removed—under a “last come, first served” system—the queues are more efficient. Researchers suggest that under this model, people are forced to change their behaviors and arrive at the queues at a slower rate. When people who arrive last are served first, there is less of a bottleneck and thus less congestion in queues.
In another study, also out of the University of Southern Denmark, researchers looked at three queuing systems: “first come, first served,” “last come, first served,” and “service-in-random-order.” To test out their theory, researchers got 144 volunteers to queue under each system. When participants were told they would be served at random from the queue, the average waiting time decreased. The waiting time decreased even further under the “last come, first served” system. It seemed that most people didn’t want to risk turning up early, only to end up being served last.
Yet when researchers measured how fair participants felt each queuing system was, “first come, first served” was seen to be the most fair, while “last come, first serve” was seen as the least—so good luck trying to implement this system in real life.