The Cost of Cutting in Line

Harvard Business School faculty rarely put their personal safety at risk to prove a point, but Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee came close when he cut ahead in line—all in the name of science. Here's what companies can learn about long lines and social behavior.
by Sean Silverthorne

No one likes to waste time standing in line. So why don't more people try to bribe their way to the front? Should companies allow some customers to move to the front of the line for a hefty fee? Is there a market for time?

Felix Oberholzer-Gee began to ponder this issue as he was, of course, waiting in line at the airport. Later, he decided to conduct a field experiment to explore the question. He and a team of experimenters equipped with small bills approached 500 people in lines and offered a cash payment of up to $10 to cut in. Would the bribe be accepted? How much would it take to jump the queue? And how would social norms and a sense of fairness play out along the line?

The results were quite surprising.

As might be expected, the higher the amount of payment offered, the more likely individuals were to allow a stranger to cut ahead of them. The surprise? The line-holders allowed the person to cut in but most wouldn't accept the money in return. (Students and women were more likely to pocket the cash.) Oberholzer-Gee took this to mean that people will allow cuts if they perceive the queue jumper has a real need to save time, though most people felt it inappropriate to cash in on that need. For line-holders, a higher bribe meant the jumper was more desperate.

But there were limits to that generosity. When Oberholzer-Gee tried to cut into the same line a second time, the crowd grew hostile and he felt forced to retreat to protect his safety. "The angry reactions suggest that even those who had accepted payment during the first encounter did not view the transaction as an ordinary exchange. Rather, the willingness to let someone cut in seems to be based on seeing the situation as exceptional."

He wrote up the results of his experiment as a paper, "A Market for Time: Fairness and Efficiency in Waiting Lines." In the following e-mail Q&A, Oberholzer-Gee discusses the research and what it might mean for companies who might want to, in fact, create a market for time.

Sean Silverthorne: What gave you the idea to conduct this field experiment?

Felix Oberholzer-Gee: Companies can purchase almost every input they need: labor, office space, a great brand. But sometimes, the price system breaks down and there is no market. In my research, I have been interested in this missing-markets problem for quite a while. Some of my earlier studies show, for example, that companies must not try to buy local approval if they plan to open a new facility that the local community does not welcome. If Wal-Mart plans to open a new store and the town does not like it, the worst thing the company could do is try to bribe its way into this market.

One day, standing in line at the airport, it occurred to me that waiting lines appeared to be another example for a missing-markets problem. Why do I have to wait at airports? Why don't the airlines offer a service that would allow me to pay $20 and move to the head of the line? To find out, I conducted this field experiment.

Q: What were the motives of people who allowed your experimenters to cut in line? Why didn't many of them accept payment? And if money wasn't an issue, why did higher payments correlate with a willingness by line-holders to allow a stranger jump the queue?

A: The data clearly show that you are more likely to be able to jump the queue if you offer more money. So first I thought that this was not an example of a missing-markets problem at all. But I was wrong. You can "purchase" a position in the line, but the people who let you cut in will not accept your money. Their behavior is motivated by a norm that says you should help others when they are in need, but you must not exploit this situation. Monetary incentives "work" in this instance because people read them as a sign for the needs of others. How hurried are you, really? If you offer $20, you must be really hard pressed for time.

Q: Why was the reaction to you so hostile when you tried to jump the same line a second time? What were the reactions like from the people you approached?

A: The same persons who let me cut in the first time got very angry when I approached them again. All fifteen individuals rejected my request, most of them appeared upset, some angry, a few outright hostile, suggesting that it was probably not safe to continue the experiment.

The data clearly show that you are more likely to be able to jump the queue if you offer more money.

The reason is that the helping norm applies to unusual circumstances. Other research shows that individuals are more likely to help if the person in need bears no responsibility for his situation. But what I did is clearly different. Arriving late at a train station and banking on others' willingness to help me cut in line violates the norm. From a social point of view, this is quite ingenious. In groups with helping norms, there will always be some people who try to exploit the friendliness of others. The anger displayed in the experiment protects the group from such exploitation.

Q: What can product and service providers learn from your research in terms of creating waiting lists?

A: Take waiting at the airport as an example. Charging passengers for the right to jump the queue is problematic. First, the airlines have some control over the length of waiting lines. If they hired additional staff, lines would be shorter. In this context, customers would feel exploited if they had to pay to make their flights. In addition, my experiments show that individuals don't feel comfortable cutting in line when jumping the queue results in longer waiting periods for others.

Given the results of the field experiment, it is easy to see why airlines don't offer an opportunity to move to the head of the line. But my research also suggests alternative systems that are more acceptable. For instance, airlines could install an emergency counter for passengers whose flights depart within thirty minutes. Using the emergency counter would result in a hefty fee. My research predicts that this system is likely to be seen as fair. First, there are no negative externalities; other passengers don't have to wait longer because someone else arrives late. Second, the fee prevents passengers from misusing the emergency system. Third, installing and operating these emergency counters is costly.

In all research on the fairness of prices, customers agree that it is fair to reimburse companies for the cost of providing extra services.