Monday, April 18, 2016

Normative Cues and the Toll Booth

There are three lanes, which do you chose?  In this photo, the cars are evenly distributed across all three lanes.  In real-life, people line up, as many as 10 cars deep, in the left lane, while the other two lanes are empty.  Why is this?

Coming back on the island today, I had a small epiphany.  We have a toll to get on the island, which is good as it keeps the crime rate low and helps pay for the upkeep of the island (we ask too much of the taxpayers as it is!).   There are three lanes and they are all identical.  You can use any of the three lanes to pay by cash, credit card, or use an RFID pass decal.   The lanes are automated and you have to insert a credit card (or cash) into a machine.

It seems pretty simple, and if you've ever used a parking kiosk in a city to buy a parking pass for your car, it is pretty much the same deal.  Insert credit card, press button, take ticket.   The authority kind of screwed it up a bit, as the decal which showed which direction the credit card should go in (and there are four possible orientations) was covered over by an idiotic decal saying "INSERT CREDIT CARD HERE!" which is dumb, as we know the slot is for credit cards, but want to know the correct ORIENTATION.   To make matters worse, they thought it would be helpful to have an audio recording (for visually impaired drivers, apparently) that yells, "Hi!  Welcome to the Island!" and reads instructions on how to use the machine - just as you started to figure out how to use it.  It is more hindrance than help.

But all that aside, we have three lanes, and all are identical. And it takes about 1-2 minutes for people to figure out the machine.  Like with drive-up ATMs, it seems about half the population is utterly unable to judge the distance between their car and the machine, so people have to stop and get out of their car or open the car door and reach out, because they can't really drive.   It can be a bit comical at times.

But what is really interesting is how people line up - often in the left lane - for no reason, even when the other two gates are available.   It may be the signage is bad.   There are signs on the two right-hand gates and not on the left.  The left has a "booth" that is usually unmanned, so maybe people think they need to go through the manned booth.   

What is funny, is that people will go to an empty booth, then back up and get in line behind six cars, rather than continue.  They were so close to getting through, and then changed their mind and decided they needed to wait in line for some reason.

I think a number of things are going on here:

1.  People think they need to go to the left lane because the other lanes have some sort of green sign, which they think doesn't apply to them.

2.  People want to ask questions at the "booth" but don't realize it is fake and the left lane has the same machine as the other two lanes.

3.  If there are people in line at the left lane booth, then there must be reason they are waiting in line, right?  I mean, people wouldn't just wait in line when they don't have to, right?  So folks shy away from trying the other two lanes, because they don't want to be stuck in the wrong lane or something.

It is an interesting study in human behavior.  Today there were 10 cars in line in the left lane, and the two right lanes were clear.  The guy at the end of the line would wait 10-20 minutes to get through the booth, while two other lanes stood empty.   And in 20 minutes, I think you could figure that out.

Of course, island residents with RFID decal passes are not too upset about this.   If the tourists think the other lanes are "reserved" then so much the better for us, right?   I mean, I sped through the booth, bypassing the 10 cars that broke the speed limit to pass me on the Lanier bridge, only to languish, unnecessarily, for nearly a half-hour at a toll booth, all because they felt they needed to stand in line.

There is an old joke that if you get three people and stand in line, before long, a queue will form.   If folks are standing in line, it must be for something important, right?   Why else are they in line?  Better get in line before it gets too long!

Similarly, if you get two or three people to look up at the sky and point, pretty soon a crowd will emerge all looking at the sky and pointing and claiming to "see it" - even when there is nothing to be seen.

The behavior of people, singularly or in crowds, is fascinating.   And I wonder if our little toll booth isn't some clever psychology experiment put together by some professor at UGA.   Or perhaps they need to hire that professor to tell them how to better manage the toll booth.   Because when it comes to crowd management, you don't need an Engineer, you need a psychologist.

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