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 investigating. This paradox states that two even-sized queues (in front of two identical cashpoints for example) stepping distance apart will see a greater proportion of new arrivals try both than one. Seems obvious doesn’t it? But the paradox goes on to explain that when a new arrival sees one queue with more than three members and the other with no queue members, they will still join the queue of three. Why? Because no one wants to be that mug. As my colleague and co-philosopher Danny Dyer has put it.

And there really is no other phrase for it. A shameful example of a man both egregiously 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 opportunist does without the remotest sense of hope, it having never worked before, he still feeling the curious compulsion to chance his arm.

The Two Queues Paradox is evidence that the risk of public humiliation outweighs the reward of exceeding common expectations and thinking the unthinkable. This makes people, like most social animals, reflexively risk-averse and our world a more boring place.

But even when he’s told there’s 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 the new fourth queue member’s head. Eyes down. Shuffling shoes.

In nature the opportunist would more often than not be dead. The victim of the paradox is evolution’s outlier you see. Put a spear in his hand and on the Serengeti he is the one charging after an 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 cash point cuntery in the face of the paradox. While we as a society are pulling wealth out of a wall, why not aim high?