If you’ve tried to buy a train ticket in a place like Morocco or Indonesia, you know that this seemingly simple task is actually a full-contact sport. Rather than forming an orderly, single-file line, people are forced to scratch, claw, elbow, and gouge their way to the ticket window, in a process that even an Ultimate Fighting champion would describe as unnecessarily painful and violent.
So why does this happen? Why can’t people in certain, usually less-developed countries form neat, single-file lines? Here are a couple possible explanations:
1. There’s no incentive for the first person to stand in line. Though forming an orderly queue might be more efficient for everyone, it’s not beneficial enough to one particular person for him or her to go through the trouble of starting a line. This is a classic example of what economists call a “collective action problem,” in which a group of people are given a choice and, if following their individual self-interests, will choose an action that is suboptimal for the group overall. Merging on the highway is another example: It might be in your interest to cut in line at the last second, but if everyone chooses that same thing, the results will be worse than if everyone simply waited their turn.
2. The absence of orderly lines is not that big of a deal to people in these countries. Though seemingly chaotic and unnecessary to those of us in the “West”, the truth might be that these “mobs” actually work. Their structure– or lack of it– rewards those who want the ticket or item the most, and only displeases those who weren’t industrious (or ruthless) enough to work their way up to the front. This is a form of price discrimination in which those who were willing to “pay” the most, in this case with time and effort, are rewarded, while those who weren’t, aren’t.
Also, even in these sorts of “mobs,” there are a certain number of unwritten rules that people follow that tend to keep them approaching civility: for example, there’s usually no punching, scratching, pinching, or any kind of behavior that causes lasting physical harm. Though if it’s your first time experiencing an Indonesian train-ticket line, it will probably feel like a free-for-all. It isn’t, but almost.
3. These countries generally have less respect for the rule of law. In countries like the US, people tend to follow rules– even pointless ones– because they’ve been raised on the maxim that “following rules is good.” This is part of the reason we stop at red lights in deserted areas at 3 am, even when there’s no police car in sight. This is why we walk back and forth through those red ropes at the bank, like rats chasing a piece of cheese, even when the place is virtually empty.
People in developing countries can often not afford the luxury of pointless rule-following. If they miss a train because the ticket line was too long, that could have serious consequences for them. They might miss work, earn less money, and have to struggle that much harder. There’s a lot more at stake for them, so it’s understandable that people would want to get to the front of the line that much faster.
4. Finally, people do what their parents did. If people are taught that mobbing a ticket booth instead of standing in line is okay (and maybe it is– standing in line is not “objectively better”; I just happen to find it easier), it becomes very hard to transition to something else. It’s all about culture. If I were raised in Morocco, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with the practice, and instead of this article I’d probably have written one called, “Why can’t people in certain countries just crowd around a ticket booth?”