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The Psychology of Queuing to Pay Respects to the Queen

A brief history of standing in long lines.

Key points

  • Willingness to stand in line may have something to do with national character.
  • Queue jumpers might be more likely to get away with it if they target the person they jump in front of as less likely to object.
  • There may be an inherent psychology to queuing where those in the queue defend the queue against intrusion.
  • We may join queues for emotional more than rational reasons due to influence by the sight of so many others willing to sacrifie their time.

The world appears impressed with the distinctive Britishness of the long solemn queue to pay respects to the Queen lying-in-state.

Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand. CC BY 4.0
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth
Source: Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand. CC BY 4.0

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship's historic insistence on queuing as a major way of allocating tickets, in the world of elite sports, also seems uniquely British.

The maximum length the queue to view the Queen lying-in-state, according to the BBC News website, was 10 miles. On Sunday September 18, BBC News estimated the wait time was at least 13.5 hours, with people being warned they will need to stand for many hours, with little chance to sit, as the queue is relentlessly moving.

Professor Joe Moran, a historian based at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, claims that it was during the war, and the immediate post-war era of scarcity and rationing, that the UK became consolidated into a nation of stoical standers-in-line.

In his investigation, entitled, ‘Queuing up in Post-War Britain’, he points out that lining up for everything became everyday life, so much so that the government became sufficiently concerned about the health impact on women standing in line for long periods. In September 1945 a scheme to give priority to expectant mothers was launched; a label was attached to their ration books saying: ‘Queue priority, please’.

Joe Moran quotes one Second World War joke; a shopkeeper says to a young woman: ‘Excuse me, miss, are you pregnant?’ She replies: ‘Well, I wasn’t when I joined the queue.’

Professor Moran cites an immigrant from Hungary, who claimed in a book entitled, ‘How To Be An Alien’ (1946), that queuing was ‘the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race,’ and even that, ‘an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one’.

Welcome to Queuetopia

Queues became so embedded into national consciousness that they also became a political football, with attitudes to standing in line playing a role in the outcome of the 1951 UK national election.

Professor Moran quotes a campaigning pre-election radio broadcast of 21 January 1950, where Winston Churchill first used the term ‘Queuetopia’ to describe a Britain suffering under Socialism.

Professor Joe Moran’s study, published in the academic journal, Twentieth Century British History, points out that Churchill went on to claim that the two key rival parties, Conservatives and Labour, stood respectively for the ladder and the queue: ‘We are for the ladder. Let all try their best to climb. They are for the queue. Let each wait in his place till his turn comes'.

Churchill was clearly alive to the psychological power of the queue, perhaps even before psychologists and this may have led to his re-election as Prime Minister.

Stanley Milgram, the eminent psychologist who was the first to demonstrate that ordinary citizens would be willing to administer lethal electric shocks to strangers, at the bidding of a white-coated authority figure, also conducted one of the most famous experiments on the psychology of queuing, published in 1986.

The author of the celebrated ‘Obedience to Authority’ series of studies, investigated whether the queue itself carried its own emotional authority, which is how, psychologically, order is maintained.

In a study entitled, ‘Response to Intrusion into Waiting Lines’, he got confederates of the experimenter to take their lives in their hands and 'cut in line' on purpose, into 129 naturally occurring queues in New York.

Physical action against the intruder occurred in 10.1 % of the lines. But the reaction of the queue was hugely influenced by the response of the first person in the line who was cut in front of - if they largely demurred and didn’t protest, then the rest of the queue behind became significantly less likely to create a fuss.

Milgram also found that whereas 73.3% of all objections came from those standing behind the point of intrusion, only 26.6% came from those in front. Yet the fact that over a quarter of times it is people in front of the intruder, and who won’t suffer any waiting penalty, still strongly objected, suggests to Stanley Milgram that the queue has a kind of powerful emotional authority, beyond mere self-interest.

More recent experiments, for example one study entitled, ‘If others jump to the queue front, how long I will wait?’, have found that it is possible we join queues because we are basically over-optimistic about the potential reward of waiting, perhaps being influenced too much by the fact that so many others have decided to line-up.

Queueing for the Queen

But the queue to see the Queen may also spell the end of an era, as new technology threatens to create mobile phone applications, allowing people planning to join a line to interact with those in the queue, bidding to 'jump' the queue, so basically paying for others to queue for them.

These apps could allow those in queues to ‘auction’ their place to the highest bidder. Economists argue this is the most efficient solution to queuing, as some people's time is just more valuable than others. After all, you can already buy your way to the front of a queue in many predicaments, as the ‘fast track’ line at the airport demonstrates.

However, will we lose something psychologically valuable with the demise of the authentic queue, where everyone waits in line, and no one can pay to queue jump? The negative reaction reported of various celebrities accused of queue jumping at the Queen’s lying-in-state, provide a clue as to the answer.

Part of the point of standing in line in some instances, may be the very experience of being part of the waiting, and sharing the extended time together. Queue jumpers are rejected strongly because they are not ‘getting it’ about the point of some queues, perhaps in particular the opportunity for a community to say goodbye to the Queen. Their tribute to the monarch becomes their sacrifice in extended but patient, dutiful, waiting.

The he very fact that waiting in line can be a powerful bonding experience was also a source of concern to the UK Government in the post-war era. The government became worried that resentful queuers would become a hotbed for conspirators as the queue also provided an opportunity for the disgruntled to meet each other and plot, given all that time on their hands.

Professor Joe Moran found that the British Ministry of Food was sufficiently worried about social unrest that it began sending staff to infiltrate queues and report back on what people were moaning about. He also uncovered that Home Intelligence claimed during the war that queues were ‘hot-beds of anti-Semitism’, because of the widespread belief that Jews ‘always manage to get hold of more food than other people’.

It would appear one key aspect of the psychology of queuing becomes whether it’s done resentfully, or gratefully.

Queues may be the last remaining element of a nation sharing something, where everyone is treated equally, and where stoical forbearance is rewarded.

But with the passing of the Queen, and the advent of new technology combined with an increasing sense that we live in world where ‘time is money’, this may be the end of the line for the queue, as we in Britain know it, and love it.

References

Queen's lying-in-state: How long is the queue? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62872323

Queuing up in Post-War Britain JOE MORAN* Liverpool John Moores University Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2005, pp. 283–305

How to be an Alien: A Handbook for Beginners and Advanced Pupils Paperback by George Mikes

Response to Intrusion Into Waiting Lines Stanley Milgram, Hilary James Liberty, Raymond Toledo, and Joyce Wackenhut Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1986, Vol. 51, No. 4,683-689

If others jump to the queue front, how long I will wait? Malgorzata J. Krawczyk, Piotr Gronek, Maria Nawojczyk, Krzysztof Ku lakowski arXiv:1407.1491v2 [physics.soc-ph] 26 Jul 2014

Markakis, Mihalis and Talluri, Kalyan and Tikhonenko, Dmitrii, Sequential Bidding for Merging in Algorithmic Traffic (May 15, 2022). Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3558175 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3558175

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