Nov. 7, 2008 -- Want to sneak to the front of a concert queue without getting caught? Seek out friends and avoid jumping in front of die-hard fans.
A study of people waiting for front-row access to U2 concerts finds that "super-fans" are most irked by queue-jumpers. People were equally peeved whether someone cut in front or behind, and cutters who jumped beside a friend were less likely to attract scorn.
"I think this cuts to the heart of how to understand [queuing] behaviour," says Marie Helweg-Larsen, a social psychologist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, who led the study.
Other researchers have tried to unpick the psychology of the queue, though most work has focused on reducing consumer frustration. However, one classic study found that New Yorkers were more likely to react to people who cut in front of them in a subway queue than behind.
Yet Helweg-Larsen argues that such experimental queue-jumping might not be the best way to gauge people's true feelings. "It's uncomfortable to confront someone in a queue," she says.
So to get a closer look into the queuer's psyche, she and colleague Barbara LoMonaco, a U2 fan and anthropologist at Transylvania University in Pennsylvania, surveyed fans waiting for access to the "pit" area, smack in front of the stage.
Up to a day before the concert, fans with "general admission" tickets form a line outside the venue. The queue is self-policed, and venue security takes a hands-off approach. Instead, marker-pen-wielding "line Nazis" enforce order by marking each person's place in line on her hand, Helweg-Larsen and LoMonaco note.
At four U2 concerts in Philadelphia and Atlanta, Helweg-Larsen and LoMonaco asked about 500 queuers how they felt about a series of line intrusions scenarios. The researchers tweaked the relative positions of the queuer and cutter, whether the cutter targeted a friend or not, and the length of the time the queuer had waited. They also noted respondents' devotion to U2.
The relative position of the cutter didn't seem to matter, they found. "You're equally screwed if you get jumped in line one ahead or five ahead or 10 ahead. You're still set back the same," she says.
Law of the Queue
Surprisingly, people took just as much offence at people who cut behind as in front. If people were acting in pure self-interest, they would only take offence to people who cut in front, Helweg-Larsen says.
Less shockingly, super-fans tended to get more upset by friendly line intruders than less devoted fans. "We found that more committed fans were much more upset about a variety of situations and in general had different attitudes," she says.
Dilip Soman, a management professor at the University of Toronto who studies queues, thinks that social justice plays an important role in people's reactions to cutting.
"You have this first come, first serve rule you don't want to violate," he says. "If the entire queuing system is threatened, people react."
And while Helweg-Larsen hopes no scofflaws will use her findings to jump queues more effectively, she witnessed one sure-fire tactic at a show, when a late-arriving fan made wild sprint to the front the instant the gates opened. "Not everyone has guts enough to do that," she says.