Waiting in the cold: the cognitive upper limits on the formation of spontaneous order.

It’s a cold Black Friday morning, minutes before a major retailer with highly anticipated products opens its doors for the day. There are hundreds of people, but no one outside. Everyone is sitting peacefully in their car, warm and comfortable, and in the last seconds before the doors open, the very first arrivals, the rabidly devoted fans who drove in at 2AM, peacefully start to walk to their rightful place before the door as it is about to open, with numbers 2 through 10 through 200 filing wordlessly and without doubt into their proper places behind. There was no wonder or doubt so no comment, that hundreds of people spent only as much time in the cold as it took to get to the double doors, and everyone retained their rightful place in the tacit parking lot queue.

This utopian fiction isn’t fictional for being utopian, just for being big. This kind of system is a perfectly accurate description of events for a crowd of 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 people. I was there. It only starts becoming fanciful at 5 or 10 or more. Naturally, the first person to arrive knows that they are first, the second that they are second and the tenth that they are tenth. But knowing your place isn’t enough, you have to realize that everyone else knows their place.

I broke the utopia the first time I showed up at Wilson Tire to get my winter tires changed out. I had heard that they don’t take appointments and that I should arrive early, even before they open, to get served without being so far back in the day’s queue that I literally wait all day. So I drive up and park among the other five or so other cars and get out to wait by the benches by the door. I was worried that there were so many other cars, but with no one at the benches by the door I figured that they must be employees or something and I rushed to take my position at the front of the queue. This was at about 6:40, a little more than a quarter of an hour before the doors were to open. New Hampshire is usually still cold when you’re switching to or from your summer tires, and I never acclimated, so I was suffering through the cold, and suddenly I wasn’t alone. Four other people got out of their cars to join me, and as new people arrived the cold crowd outside the front door got bigger, with a sort of rough line forming up. I slowly realized that I was a defector, and that I had best imagine myself as behind the people who I had forced out of their cars. That cohort of us milled on the concrete landing, some starting to stand up in an actual queue, me staying more relaxed in my bench, trusting that others would be smart enough to know I was near the front, even though I hadn’t been smart enough waiting from my car to realize that they were. The later arrivals, who saw the milling but had no sense of its order, avoided the mess by queueing up on the asphalt, further away. Immediately before the doors opened one guy with incredible hubris got out of his car at the last minute and cut in front of all of us to be the first served. I was steamed, as much at him as at the docility of the others in my early bird cohort for not saying anything. But I tend to be more of a litigator than most.

It was only after several minutes that I realized that he must have been the first, he’d probably arrived at 6, and his confidence in boldly taking his rightful place was built on the recognition that the other early arrivals would realize he’d been first. But I never did, at least not in time, with the result that I made 5 people get out of their cars who, until my arrival, had peacefully and stably trusted each other to stay warm in their cars, and queue up physically when the time was right. But if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It’s much harder for the late arrivals than the early ones.

Number 1 doesn’t just know they’re first, they also know that 2 knows that they are first. 2 knows who 1 is and knows that 1 knows they know. They know that 3 won’t know who is 1 and who is 2, but they realize that 3 will be able to trust 1 and 2 to know each other. 4 might also realize that they are driving into a queue, but 5 and 6 just see a bunch of cars with no order. They know that they are number of 5 or 6, but they think that they’re they’re the last beans in a pile, rather than the last in an increasingly tacit queue. And even if they realize they’re in a queue, 6 might not trust that 5 realizes.

For a car queue to form, it’s not enough to know that you are 10, you have to realize that 9 know they are 9 (and who 10 is), 8 knows they are 8 (and who 9 is), 7 knows they are 7, and so on down to 1, 2, and 3, who know each other, and who know that they know each other knows. When everyone has the capacity to realize they are in a queue, they can queue in the warmth of their cars. But where are minds top out, and common knowledge of the queue breaks down, defection begins.

I’ve now had my tires changed out a few times at Wilson. Number 1 is never the first out of their car. It’s always number 4 or 5 or, in my case, 6. They tend to sit on a bench a few feet from the door. They are followed within a minute or so by the person who came right before them, who wants to signal their priority. And once two people are out, the cascase begins, and everyone else gets out, with the earliest birds standing by the door instead of sitting on the bench, so as to secure their proper place (and signal that they’re securing it). This stays stable, with the sitters knowing their place relative to the standers, and the standers knowing it too. But persons 9 and 10 come upon a disorderly sight, a confusing mix of sitters looking relaxed even though they were the nervous defectors, and standers trying to be in line without looking like they’re in line. 9 adapts to this unsteady sight by standing further away from the door on the asphalt, and 10 lines up behind 9. When the doors open, 9 and 10 watch with apparent wonder as the gaggle by the door fails to devolve into jockeying and each person wordlessly finds their proper place. Of course, it shouldn’t be any surprise: as long as everyone knows their own number, there is enough information for everyone to find their place and even enough information for everyone to keep everyone else accountable

This inevitable degradataion of newcomer’s mental models from queue to pile, from ordered to disordered, creates growing insecurity that people adapt to by moving from an imaginary line to a physical one. In a physical line, you don’t even have to know which number you are, you just have to know where the end of the line is, and so it can scales to hundreds or thousands. On the way to the physical line, a variety of alternative institutions—the very comfortable car queue, the cold but somewhat trustful bench queue, the eventually self-organizing aggregation by the door—ascended and then degraded as common knowledge of them degraded.

A line seems like a simple and straightforward thing. But what for me was moving to the bench to start a line looked others like someone trying to cut in a line that had already existed. If we were all capable of thinking harder and deeper, so capable that we could count on each other to always be doing so wordlessly, then Black Friday shoppers or summer blockbuster campers could enjoy a much more comfortable, satisfying, and civilized norm. But quiet pressures like human reasoning limits, and the degradation of common knowledge they trigger, cause cultural processes to select for institutions that are easy to think about. If you look around, you’ll see lots of situations where cognitive simplicity has won out over social efficiency or fairness, and absent a lot of awkward conversation, it’s perfectly natural to expect it.

Testing it

I may be making this all up, but it’s very easy to test. All I’d have to do is get up at 5:30AM for the next 30 days and drive over with a clipboard record the following events:

    • Time and number of each arrival
      Time at which each person exits their car
      Order of entry into the tire shop.
  • Everything I’m saying make pretty clear predictions. With few people in the parking lot, people will stay in their cars. With many, they will start to get out and queue up. The first person out of the car will usually be the fourth or fifth arrival. The first arrival may tend to be the last out of the car.

    This could be done from afar, at any tire shop, two times a year in any region with winters. An especially nice property of the domain is that this queueing problem, being something people only deal with a few times a year, is sort of a one-shot game, in that every morning brings entirely new people with more or (probably) less experience at navigating the trust and reasoning issues that make parking lot queues so fraught. But it’s hard to get out of bed, which I guess explains why there are so many theorists.