Danish researchers have an enraging proposal to speed up queues: Serve the last person first

May it never end.
May it never end.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Hungarian-born British author George Mikes once wrote “an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”

Whether it’s at the bank or the grocery store, waiting in line is a staple of British life. What, then, would Brits make of  Danish researchers who suggest the age-old discipline of “first-come, first-served” is a waste of time?

In their study, published in Discussion Papers on Business and Economics (pdf) by the University of Southern Denmark, researchers describe the “first-come, first-served” principle as a “curse.” For the study, they consider a purely theoretical situation where people could line up at any time when a facility opens, like boarding an airplane.

The problem with “first-come, first-served” is it incentivizes people to arrive early, which researchers say results in people waiting for the longest period of time. When this incentive is removed—under a “last-come, first-served” system—the queues are more efficient. Researchers suggest that under this model, people are forced to change their behaviors and arrive at the queues at a slower rate. When people who arrive last are served first, there is less of a bottleneck and thus less congestion in queues.

In another study, also published in Discussion Papers on Business and Economics (pdf), researchers looked at three queuing systems; “first-come, first-served;” “last-come, first-served;” and “service-in-random-order.” To test out their theory, researchers got 144 volunteers to queue under each system. When participants were told they would be served at random from the queue, the average waiting time decreased. The waiting time decreased even further under the “last-come, first-served” system. It seemed that most people didn’t want to risk turning up early, only to end up being served last.

Yet when researchers measured how fair participants felt each queuing system was, “first-come, first-served” was seen to be the most fair, while “last-come, first-served” was seen as the least. So good luck trying to implement this system in real life.