The Social Norms of Waiting in Line
67 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2015 Last revised: 10 Nov 2016
Date Written: February 3, 2015
This Article examines the rules and practices of waiting in line as a system of informal order, showing that despite its reputation for drudgery, the queue offers rich insights about social norms and the psychology of cooperation. The Article begins by investigating the implicit customs of physical waiting line, uncovering the surprisingly complex unwritten rules (and exceptions) that give queues stability even in the absence of legal governance or state enforcement. Yet the prevailing norms literature typically explains informal order by reference to close-knit groups that can impose sanctions on violators of extralegal rules. This raises a puzzle: Why do queue norms repeatedly produce informal, yet reliable, order among total strangers unlikely to interact again? This Article answers this question by looking to social-psychological research showing that people tend to be strong reciprocators rather than selfish utility maximizers. This model makes sense of both our tendency to defer to line norms as well as the disproportionate sanctions with which defectors from these norms meet.
Keywords: Lines, queues, norms, property, informal order
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