Waiting patiently in a line is often thought to be a quintessentially British custom. Delve deeper, however, and you find that queuing can tell us a lot about the evolutionary mystery of altruism.

As sources of competition go, queuing must be one of the most perplexing. But standing patiently in line appears to be one of Britain’s greatest prides alongside our love of tea, fish and chips, and drinking in pubs. A recent survey of 2,000 Brits found queue-jumping to be our biggest pet hate – and we like to assume that we are a bit better at waiting patiently than the average foreigner.

This obsession dates back to at least the middle of the last century, when George Orwell tried to get inside the mind of a tourist visiting the UK for the first time. “Our imaginary foreign observer would certainly be struck by our gentleness: by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues,” he wrote in his essay The English People.

The website of the etiquette guide Debrett’s takes a similar view today, writing: “For foreigners, the art of queuing must seem esoteric at best and maddening at worst: queue-barging is the worst solecism a foreigner can commit; even the reticent English will feel justified in sharply pointing out the back of the line to any errant queue-jumpers.”

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One columnist even goes as far as to label Britain’s asylum seekers as “queue-jumping knifemen” – as if line cutting were somehow on a par with terrorism

Sadly, these colourful claims are often tinged with darker undertones. In another essay from the mid-1940s, Orwell documents how a failure to wait in line was the foundation of several anti-Semitic slurs. Newspaper reports today show that it continues to be a source of resentment against ethnic minorities and immigrants. Peter Hitchens, a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, goes as far as to decry the “queue-jumping knifemen” seeking asylum on Britain’s shores – as if the odd case of line-cutting were somehow on a par with terrorism. The art of queuing has been considered so central to our identity that it was even incorporated into the government’s citizenship exam.

The irony, of course, is that the word queue is itself an immigrant, flown in from across the Channel.

So what’s the truth behind the myth? Was George Mikes, the Hungarian émigré, right when he claimed that “an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one”? Or is it a more universal occupation shared by many different cultures across the world? Taking this closer look at the queue doesn’t just answer idle curiosity: it can also address deeper questions about the nature of human altruism.

Let’s start across the Atlantic with an experiment by the famed US psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram is best-known for his studies of obedience and control in the 1960s, in which participants were asked to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to a fellow subject (who was really an actor, pretending to be hurt). They were told that is was a necessary part of the experiment, and not to take notice of the apparent cries of pain. Milgram found that the participants were surprisingly willing to follow the scientists’ orders, with the majority agreeing to administer even the most powerful electric shock of 450 volts. The experiment was meant to illustrate how easily we will allow our morals to be dictated by a greater authority.

By the 1980s, however, Milgram’s interests had softened, as he turned to explore the taboo of queue-jumping. He sent his research team to New York’s train stations and betting shops, where they sidled up to the waiting customers and inserted themselves between the third and fourth person – then stayed for around a minute before departing.

The New Yorkers were far from happy to see someone pushing in front of them. In around 15% of cases, they managed to contain their feelings with dirty looks and hostile stares; 20% of the time, they were more vocal, calling out “No way! The line’s back there” or “Hey buddy, we’ve been waiting. Get off the line and go to the back.” In around 10% of the experiments, their outrage became physical, tugging at the intruders’ sleeves or forcibly shoving them out of the line.

But of even more interest were the feelings of the intruders themselves. Milgram noted that it often took half an hour for his US colleagues to work up the courage to enter the line, and their anxiety was often so great that they were visibly pale and suffered from nausea. (It is an interesting parallel with Milgram’s previous experiments – apparently, queue-jumping causes nearly as much soul-searching as electrocuting someone.) Although Milgram’s work does not offer a direct comparison, their discomfort would seem to suggest that New Yorkers are just as concerned about disrupting these social norms as any British person.

There are many other examples, says Dave Fagundes, a law professor at the University of Houston, who recently explored the subject in an article for Law and Social Inquiry. He points to the elaborate queuing system that has grown around Duke University’s highly popular basketball games, for which students will happily camp for days in a ‘tent city’ in order to gain tickets. “Many people think of it as a rite of passage for being a Duke student,” says Fagundes.

The etiquette of the Duke queues are so complex that it has even been formalised into a 36-page rule book, setting forth regulations like how many people should be present in a tent at any one time or which toilets you can use while waiting in line. Fagundes jokes that the “byzantine” system “could form the basis for an advanced law school seminar”.

Beyond the US, anecdotal evidence would suggest that northern European countries like Germany and Sweden are equally conscious of queuing etiquette. But this isn’t confined to the stereotypically rule-abiding northern nations. Consider the Nigerian oil shortage of the 1970s: customers formed extremely well organised lines at petrol stations despite the scarcity of the precious resource. “It shows that very orderly queues are not solely the province of Anglo-American society,” says Fagundes.

Very orderly queues are not solely the province of Anglo-American society – Dave Fagundes

Needless to say, however, there will be some variation between cultures. Fagundes describes the “¿Quién es último?” system that prevails in Spain and other Latin countries, for instance, where people entering a café will simply ask the “who’s last?” to establish when to take their turn; the disadvantage, of course, is that you have no idea exactly how long you are going to have to wait. And admittedly, people from places such as mainland China may once have been more likely to form a more muddled huddle in certain situations, leading the government to advise citizens on more orderly queuing before the Beijing Olympics. But taking a global view, Britain appears not to be especially preoccupied with queuing.

This is more profound than mere parlour-room chit-chat: Fagundes thinks that queuing neatly illustrates the evolutionary theory of “strong reciprocity”. According to this idea, most humans are inherently altruistic, with a powerful instinct to cooperate with the group – provided that everyone is contributing fairly. Crucially, according to this theory, we will punish others for free-riding even if it comes at a cost to us personally; our sense of fair play overrules our immediate self-interest. (The benefit is that it results in a more stable society in the long term.) This is opposed to other theories of altruism, which state that we cooperate only to boost our own resources. In those scenarios, we would forego punishing others if means that we lose out overall. 

Strong reciprocity has been shown to determine the results of various economic games in which a participant is given small pots of money to share with their partner. The partner can either accept or reject the offers made for them. The catch is that if they reject the offer, both participants will go away with nothing. Rationally, everyone should take the money and run – yet psychologists have consistently shown that people will be happy to sacrifice their own cash if they think the offer is unfair, spiting themselves as they punish their partner, just as strong reciprocity would predict.

For Fagundes, queuing exemplifies this principle in modern society. We are all happy to wait our turn without pushing in as long as everyone is treated fairly. But if someone transgresses, we feel an outrage that does not, rationally speaking, fit the crime (and which, if we act on it, will probably only delay us further). And as the strong reciprocator theory also predicts, we may just abandon the queue altogether and form a scrum if we lose faith that others are also cooperating.

Amplifying the queue’s potency, he says, is the fact that the line itself is a “super-salient signal”. Whether you are waiting at a bar or standing in line of a stadium gig, “the sight of a thousand or even a few people waiting patiently in line communicates the essence of human cooperation in a way designed to trigger others' instinct for reciprocity,” he notes in his paper. It is perhaps for this reason that people prefer standing in a physical line, rather than being given a numbered ticket, say – because it reinforces the visual perception of group cooperation.

The sight of people waiting patiently in line communicates the essence of human cooperation – Dave Fagundes

Luke Treglown at University College London agrees that it’s a possibility. He points out that we are so sensitive to the “justice” of the queue that people will react angrily even if no one has actually cheated. We hate it if the line next to us moves faster than our own at an airport check-in, for instance; at a restaurant, we might feel angry if the family behind us are seated at the same time that we are. “We believe that people in the queue should have to wait for the same amount of time you have waited, regardless of whether it affects your waiting time or not,” he says.

Comparing countries, Treglown points out that the reputations for the strictest queuing etiquette tends to appear in more individualistic societies – such as Britain, Europe and the USA – where people tend to be more highly sensitive to apparent inequality between people. Overall, however, he agrees that the cultural differences are not nearly as marked as people imagine. “The difference between you and me is potentially greater than between me and the average Swedish person, for example,” Treglown says.

In many ways our reputation for queuing is like our apparent interest in the weather: although the British probably don't really talk about the climate more than other nations, the very idea of our obsession has become a conversation point in itself. And that says more about our perception of ourselves and our own culture, and how we would like to be seen, than about our actual behaviour. “No one likes queueing, but British people have an appreciation of the orderliness and equity that surrounds it,” Treglown says. “They have this romantic idea of queuing.”

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David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter.

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