Customers line up to enter a new-opened Apple Store in China. Customers line up to enter a new-opened Apple Store in China. Customers line up to enter a new-opened Apple Store in China. (Photo: VCG / Getty Images)

The real reason you wait in line to see Santa

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains the evolutionary reason that big lines attract people.

You're standing in a line that wraps around the whole center of the mall, waiting for some elf who looks like David Sedaris to bring you to a chubby old man dressed in red. You've been waiting 10 minutes, 20, 40, and yet the line shows no sign of getting shorter. Bored children, styrofoam snowballs and velvet ropes make up your own personal hell.

You consider leaving this winter nightmareland, but something keeps you there. It might be a nostalgic Christmas spirit, but it could also be a quirk in your mammalian brain that you share with wildebeests.

People have evolved to follow herds, explained superstar Israeli economist Dan Ariely in his new book, "Dollars and Sense." And businesses make use of this mentality. Have you ever been stuck waiting with a group outside a music venue when the spacious building could easily let you all in? They might be keeping you there to get passersby to come to the show.

We assume that, if other people are doing something, then it's a good idea.

"That’s what we are designed to do," Ariely told me. "It’s not something we are aware of."

This tendency can be dangerous. When fires break out in crowded movie theaters, everyone often runs to the same door and gets stuck in a bottleneck, even when there are two other side doors going unused.

“It’s very hard to say, ‘Everyone’s running in that direction. Let me sit here and think and look carefully around’," Ariely went on.

We've all seen footage of people breaking out into a stampede on Black Friday and trampling others at Target. Viewers often make fun of these groups, wondering how so many customers could be so stupid. But the crowds aren't really thousands of individuals making dumb decisions. The crowds are just crowds; that's what crowds do.

Like wildebeests on the Serengeti running from lions, our species depends on a tendency for many people to act like one big animal. This same mental tendency helps us build skyscrapers together and distribute food around the world. It just also means we can be indiscriminate about which groups we join. If you're in a group, your mind isn't really your own.

So as you wait for Santa, know that the line might not just be moving slowly because Santa keeps taking a lunch break. Rather, the Santa business might be keeping the line long on purpose, to draw other shoppers into the herd.


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