Joshua Bullock

Social Studies: The Two Queues Paradox

Joshua Bullock
Social Studies: The Two Queues Paradox

Anyone who has visited a cashpoint will have some experience of the Two Queues Paradox that I have recently put some energy into formulating and investigating.

This is a theory in two parts: the first part states that two even-sized queues (in front of two identical cashpoints) stepping distance apart will witness a greater proportion of new arrivals try both queues than remain in one. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

But the paradox goes on also to venture that when a new queuer arrives to see one cashpoint with a queue of more than three people and the other with no queue, they will join the queue of three rather the queue-less cashpoint. Why? Because no one wants to be that mug. As a colleague and co-philosopher Danny Dyer has put it.

And there really is no other phrase for it. Walking to an unoccupied hole-in-the-wall which three other people have already seemingly rejected is a shameful example of a man simultaneously putting himself on trial and sending himself down in a court of his peers. The vacant cashpoint should of course tell the opportunist what the three other queue members watching him have already guessed. Without having to push a card in, tap their pin code and select an amount. All of which the optimistic opportunist does without the remotest sense of hope, it never having worked before, he still feeling the curious compulsion to chance his arm.

The Two Queues Paradox is evidence that the risk of public humiliation generally outweighs the reward of exceeding expectations and thinking the unthinkable. It proves people, like most social animals, are reflexively risk-averse and our world a more boring place because of it.

But even when he reads that there is no cash in the machine the opportunist can console himself with the promise that one day he’ll come up a winner. For now, reality sits at the back of the line, and more specifically the back of a newly arrived fourth queue member’s head. Eyes down. Shuffling shoes.

In nature, the opportunist would more often than not have been long killed for this type of chancing. The victim of the paradox is evolution’s outlier you see. Put a spear in his hand, place him on the Serengeti and he is the one charging solo after the elephant despite all warnings to the contrary. But the day he wasn’t obliterated from the gene pool by a tusk would mean a meat windfall the other primitives could only dream of. Risk in the herd is self-selectingly rare. Opportunists are, by their very nature, literally a dying breed.

This is neither a condemnation nor a vindication of the opportunist's cashpoint cuntery in the face of the paradox. While we as a society are pulling wealth out of a wall, why not aim high?