How to Cut in Line

A scientific approach

Christopher DeLorenzo

Waiting in line is a scourge of modernity. According to David Andrews’s book, Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?, it wasn’t common until the Industrial Revolution synchronized workers’ schedules, causing lines that gobbled up lunch hours and evenings. Given that Americans are estimated to collectively waste tens of billions of hours a year in lines, it’s no wonder that some people try to cut, and others bitterly resent them. Yet jumping the queue without inviting violence is possible. Below, some pointers, courtesy of social science.

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First, pick the right queue. It’s virtually impossible to cut the line for a once-in-a-lifetime event—the Cubs playing the World Series, say. But in a repeating scenario like a security line, people are more likely to let you in, perhaps because they anticipate needing a similar favor someday. Using game theory to determine what conditions would make line-cutting socially permissible, researchers found that people queuing just once display little tolerance for line-cutting. But when the queue repeats, people let in intruders who claim an urgent need or who require minimal service time. [1]

An excuse for cutting helps, but it needn’t be bulletproof. In one much-cited study, experimenters tried to jump photocopier queues using one of three explanations. A small, polite request without justification—“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”—enabled them to cut 60 percent of the time. Adding that they were rushed allowed them to cut 94 percent of the time. And “May I use the Xerox machine, because I need to make copies?” was almost as effective, despite its flimsiness. [2]

Bribing can also work, and it may not even cost you. In one study, queuers were offered cash by an undercover researcher if they’d let the researcher cut. A majority agreed, but oddly, most of them then refused the cash. They appreciated the offer not out of greed, but because it proved the intruder’s desperation. [3]

The person directly behind an intrusion usually gets to decide whether to allow it, according to a study co-authored by the psychologist Stanley Milgram. If that person doesn’t object, other queuers tend to stay quiet. The experiment also found that two simultaneous intruders provoked greater ire than one—so if you’re going to line-jump, travel solo. [4]

Keep in mind that tolerance for line-cutting varies across cultures. One survey of foreigners living in Spain revealed many national differences in queuing rules. An Irish respondent fumed, “They say ‘I just want to ask a quick question’ and go right up to the counter … I’m ready to explode.” A German subject indignantly described a fellow supermarket shopper: “A woman walked right in front of me and put her things on the counter. She says ‘No [it’s] okay, we’re together’ pointing to the other woman who had just finished paying … It seems that in Spain that’s allowed. Incredible.” [5]

Back in America, the worst sin of line-cutting is pretending you’re not doing it. Like members of any community, queuers want their customs observed. We’d all escape line-waiting if we could, but that way anarchy lies. So if you must cut, just ask—nicely. Doing so reinforces the social contract, and it works.

The Studies:

[1] Allon and Hanany, “Cutting in Line” (Management Science, March 2012)

[2] Langer et al., “The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June 1978)

[3] Oberholzer-Gee, “A Market for Time” (Kyklos, Aug. 2006)

[4] Milgram et al., “Response to Intrusion Into Waiting Lines” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Oct. 1986)

[5] Pàmies et al., “Uncovering the Silent Language of Waiting” (Journal of Services Marketing, 2016)