Let the psychologists keep their reverse psychology

Thursday, December 30th, 2021

Tim Harford looks at uses of reverse logic:

The problem with queues is obvious: they waste time. Less obvious is that each queuer is getting in the way of everyone behind them. If someone gives up and walks away, everyone behind them benefits. Imagine a line of Christmas market stalls serving hot chocolate, mulled wine, mince pies and other seasonal comestibles. People stroll along the row of stalls, keen to enjoy a warming treat on a winter’s day.

The problem is that every stall has a queue. One person a minute is served, and people are willing to wait for up to 10 minutes. If there are already 10 people in line, they keep walking. This common-sense way of queueing is a disaster. Each queue will be near the maximum length, otherwise people would quickly join it. Each stall operates at capacity, but nobody gets their mulled wine without waiting around until the very limits of their patience.

What does reverse logic tell us about this problem? Steven Landsburg, the author of the classic The Armchair Economist, proposes an alternative rule: those that are last shall be first. Each new person who joins a queue goes to the front, standing immediately behind the person being served. This is, of course, an outrage against reason, intuition and natural justice. It is also highly efficient. If you’re next in line to be served, but someone shows up and shoehorns herself into position in front of you, you walk away. The line is only going to get longer, and you’re always going to be at the back.

Under the Landsburg system, the stalls still serve one seasonal treat a minute, but the queues are short. Alas, the Landsburg rule can only be imposed in controlled environments such as a theme park, perhaps. But you might consider applying a dose of Landsburg’s logic to your own “to do” list: don’t add a new item to the list unless you’re willing to do it immediately. A little impractical, yes, but also bracingly realistic. If it’s not important enough even to be the top priority right now, maybe it will never be the top priority, and it shouldn’t be sitting on your “to do” list at all.

Is there something about economists that makes them particularly attracted to reverse logic? Perhaps. Two classic ideas in economics are Frédéric Bastiat’s “things seen and things not seen” and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. These ideas point to the way in which economists think: obvious and direct changes unleash indirect and less-than-obvious consequences. Let the psychologists keep their reverse psychology; we’ll enjoy our reverse logic.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Darwin favors the successful line cutter: he’s successful because Darwin favors him.

    No one tolerates the unsuccessful line cutter. Minding your place is a way for the weak to survive. Survival, for the weak, is all about buying time.

    Walking away is a good way to starve to death.

  2. Contaminated NEET says:

    This is beyond idiotic. Suppose I’m waiting in a “Landsburg queue,” and someone new joins the line and goes ahead of me. I give up and leave the line, but I still want the mulled wine, so I rejoin the line. Wow, I’m now at the front of the line! What a deal! But wait, the person now behind me sees what I did, and copies my trick. Now he’s at the front of the line, and I’m behind him. But I can just repeat, and so can he, ad infinitum. We mill around like morons for a minute until someone gets served at random, or more likely, the whole thing degenerates into a fistfight.

    Aren’t economists supposed to take incentives into account? Isn’t that the magic that they say gives them such supposedly great insights? These people are hubris-drunk trash and their “counter-intuitive” ideas aren’t even fit to line birdcages.

  3. Bert says:

    In practice, people would just hang around in the vicinity, trying to get there right when the current customer is finishing up. If non-orderly people, they might get into a fistfight. If orderly, they might start an informal line next to the “real” one. :)

  4. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Landsburg queue… sounds like ‘standing in line’ in a crowded market in China.

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