I was flying this past week, and as such got to witness some interesting behavior that emerges at airports. I'm not in the least surprised that people do interesting things in airports, travel is naturally stressful, and the ridiculous and unnecessary (not to mention useless) policies just make it worse. As such it gives you a good chance to watch how people respond to various situations.
The two events I will detail are about cheating, in the sense of subverting an established order for personal gain at the expense of the other organisms that obey the order. Cheating is one of those incredibly interesting evolutionary problems (for a taste see this excellent post
from the always-good R Ford Denison
at This Week in Evolution
, a must-read). Unfortunately I can't find any good reference pages with introductory material, so we'll soldier on without it (the Wikipedia article was woefully short, a knowledgeable biologist should improve it).
I was flying Southwest, and the lines had been formed for a while (for those who don't know Southwest divides the passengers into three groups, A B and C, which board in that order, first-come first-serve seating). A fairly attractive woman walked up and sat down in a chair that was near the line, but way ahead of the back. I knew right away that she was just going to cut the queue, well aware that no one would say anything about her cheating. When boarding started she sure enough did just that, and got onto the plane before about a dozen people who were in line before her.
That incident got me thinking about the politics of lines. If people don't actively create an incentive to follow the rules, then cheaters will prosper at the expense of the cheated, and soon the order will dissolve completely (at least evolutionarily, it needn't work that way in a social phenomenon, but I suspect it would). So there must be some kind of punishment for cheating, but I don't know what it is. I think that most people appreciate the order, and wouldn't want to disrupt it (for whatever reason, they are probably quite numerous). For the rest who don't cheat, perhaps the fear of being perceived as an asshole is great enough to overcome the slight gain of cheating, or perhaps those people fear some kind of retaliation. Those who do cheat must not care too much about anything but themselves, and must be confident that they will get away with their transgression (which is why I mentioned that the woman was attractive, had I--a college-aged male--attempted the same feat, the odds of success would be much worse, although they could still be in favor of success).
This is where I wish I had some handy links to computational biology sources, because computer simulation is often used to test the success of certain behaviors under certain conditions, and (from what I remember) cheaters usually exist, but in small numbers. There will be some kind of dynamic equilibrium where more cheaters make them less likely to succeed and vice-versa, which leads to a sinusoidal variation of behaviors within a population of "animals". Of course, reality is more complicated, but simulations are a useful (and interesting) approximation. I wonder if anyone has ever done a field-study on cheating in line at airports...
The second incident was quite different from the first. I had very little time to spare to make it to my flight after a connection, and when I arrived in line asked the last person in it (a fairly elderly woman) if this was the "A" line for the flight, and she replied that it was. We talked for a while (her daughter and son-in-law are Nuclear Physicists at Los Alamos), and after a while I noticed that her boarding pass distinctly said "B". She was in the wrong line! Never before had I seen such a thing. I wondered whether or not I should say something, and I decided not to. I really wanted to see how the attended taking the passes would react. When she handed him the ticket he didn't even notice. She got right onto the plane, probably 30 places ahead of where she would have if she had been in the correct line. I'm sure she got a much better seat because of her cheating.
I began to wonder if she made a mistake. I doubted it. I had specifically asked if it was the A line, and she picked up her bags when they announced that the A's were boarding. While she was old she didn't appear dopey, but (once again) I guessed that she figured that if she was called on her cheating she could appeal to her appearance and pretend to be dopey. Perhaps she knew that they wouldn't even check.
But that got me wondering about how Southwest prevents cheaters. The agent seemed oblivious enough that anyone could do it, and it would completely subvert the Southwest model of boarding. I don't know if they have any policies in place to prevent that kind of cheating, but they didn't seem to. It is possible that the old lady got permission to be in that line ahead of time, but I doubt it; she would have just preboarded, getting on before everyone, instead of just before the rest of the B's (and a handful of A's). This is the kind of cheating that the rest of the people have an active interest in preventing since it entirely breaks the system on which they depend. However, I suppose most people aren't so unscrupulous as to board before they're supposed to; our natural reverence for rules and order probably makes most people reject the thought out of hand. But it only takes a few to throw the system into chaos...
This has been long enough, and those are my thoughts on cheaters and cheating. This is one of those areas that's very interesting and almost certainly fertile for research, although perhaps not in airports. I have some more thoughts from my trip, many inspired by Sagan, to come in the following days. Stay tuned!
Labels: airplanes, airports, biology, evolution, science, southwest airlines, travel