7 Dec 2011

Like animals ruled as they are

Last night I had an experience – a simple one most might think - that left me in some degree of bewilderment. I left it alone and allowed my ‘unconscious’ to process it overnight (while I slept). This morning I got up bursting with thoughts. However, I’m afraid most of you are not going to like it. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re probably already a glutton for punishment. So get ready for more. Yes it will be taken by some as yet another assault on human nature.

I went to my local train station to collect tickets from their ticket machines – this is around 17:00. It was dark, cold and sprinkling with rain, but not so heavy that I needed an umbrella. So I parked, quickly exited my car and walked about 50 metres to the station, which was in sight. I got to 5 rows of these ticket machines. You can either purchase new tickets or collect tickets which were previously purchased online. The latter was my situation, as I had purchased tickets online the night before.

Older ticket machineI quickly noticed that there were four queues of people against four out of five machines. The machine to the extreme left had the smallest queue, so I decided to join that one. There were about four people ahead of me. I looked immediately to my right at the machine against which there was no queue. What was most obvious was an A5 sized notice stuck on that machine, as well as all the other machines. However only the machine to my right had no queue. As the seconds passed I wondered why people weren't lining up against that machine. I read the notice on that machine and it referred to some changes to the local timetable. There was no notice on the machine saying that it was out of order. All the other queues had between 10 and 15 people in each.

The scene was one of people rushing about, and bumping into each other. Some of those who had come off the train and made their way through the turnstiles, were colliding with those in the queues.

I felt slightly hesitant to leave my short queue to go to the machine to my right which had none. The Turnstilesmain anxiety that came over me was that perhaps if I went to that machine and it was actually out of order then I might lose my place in the short queue which I was in. However, my tendency to be ruled by observation and reason was not to be overcome by some fleeting anxiety. So I decided to move to the machine to my right where there was no one. I touch the screen and noticed that it was in perfect working order. Almost immediately a woman from another queue came up from behind me and to my left and enquired, "is it working". I replied that it appeared to be working and it seemed that no one was using it probably because they assumed that the notice meant it was out of order. I reached into my pocket to get out my credit card from my wallet and suddenly realised my wallet was in the car in a briefcase.

I went back to the car, fetched a wallet, and returned within 60 seconds. The woman who had approached me was actually using the machine. In that short amount of time, a queue of about 10 people had gathered behind her. Unusually I went back into the same queue at the same machine I was at before, which had now reduced to just two people ahead of me. The woman was able to complete her transaction at the previously suspect machine, without problems. I was seemingly at some relative advantage for my lapse of memory, because I should have expected the queue at the boxy looking machine to have increased in length. However, it had shortened ‘relatively’, by people now gravitating to the machine that was previously thought of by the ‘herd’ to be defective – but was quite clearly in good working order. 
There were two unusual things above that I need to point out.
  1. The short queue that I had entered on both occasions, was an older looking machine, covered in some sort of shiny aluminium finish. The other machines had a more modern looking finish in blue plastic like material, with more curved edges. All machines had some display on them to clearly indicate that one could purchase new tickets or collect pre-booked ones.
  2. It was unusual for there to be such long queues against three of the blue machines, and none against one blue machine.
My overnight processing brought up the following possible explanations, which I do not assert are bound to be right – and I am sure there are alternative and additional explanations.
  1. Possibly something about the design of the blue machines made them more attractive over the squarer boxy looking aluminium finished one.
  2. Possibly the shorter queues at the boxy looking machine could have been due to a collective feeling in the minds of others that it was likely to be unreliable.
  3. I thought it was quite probable that there was no queue at one of the blue machines because the absence of a queue may have indicated to other people that the machine was out of order. And I wish to return to that point later on, because there was no evidence other than the absence of a queue that might indicate that the machine was defective.
  4. It was also possible that people who were in quite a rush did not read the A5 sized notice on the machine.
  5. A combination of all of the above conspired against one machine – to the overall disadvantage of the ‘herd’.
This morning therefore, I am in awe about the frailty of human nature both at individual and collective levels. It appeared to me that degrees of anxiety, a tendency to follow the behaviour of the 'herd', and the ease with which conscious cognitive processes are overwhelmed by the latter two primitive protective processes, are what resulted in the strange response to a machine that was in perfect working order. I continue to marvel at how we as human beings tend to pride ourselves with so much intelligence, yet we are ruled so easily and rather stupidly by primitive deeply ingrained instincts.
p.s. The above is produced using Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred for about 95% of the text. I take full responsibility for all spelling and grammatical errors. Some apparent errors are intentionally of ‘writer’s privilege’.

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