The Ankisisika Conundrum

Next time you are waiting in line and someone tries to jump in front of you, what are you going to do?

[a pseudo-game theoretic exploration of the art of ankisisika]

Queues are permanent features of our daily lives. Long lines can be seen at most administrative offices, at Air Madagascar counters, at taxibe stations, at JIRAMA bill-paying kiosks, even, according to some reports, at those fancy June 26 banquets in Iavoloha.

In spite of our legendary “miandry izay lahatra” (waiting for your destiny) or “miandry fa gasy” (waiting as a Malagasy) patience, we have a rather low tolerance when it comes to waiting in line. In our fast pace world, patiently standing in line is increasingly perceived as a sign of weakness and passivity. And, being able to get our turn ahead of everyone else is considered as an indicator of intelligence, skill, and power.

Maybe it is because of the seventies and the eighties — when things were confusingly scarce and cheap, when most commodities were rationed, when we had to “milahatra” and stand in line at the “biraom-pamatsiana” for the most basic items like soap, sugar, oil, and rice. Maybe the siege mentality that we have acquired during those two Revolisiaona Sosialista decades — when supplies were so limited that whoever got caught at the end of the line ran the risk of going home empty handed — has equipped us with a “tsy manaiky ho gisitra” (never the last) mindset and made us masters of the art of “ankisisika.”

Whether we like them or not, lines serve important social purposes. At the very basic level, queueing offer an opportunity to socialize with our fellow citizens, to exchange the latest gossips, and to slow down and smell the tambavy. More importantly, they help keep a certain degree of order, discipline, and civility in our society. In most cases, allocating goods or services on a first-come first-served basis is often more efficient, more orderly and more fair than a free-for-all “ankisisika” mechanism. Such a mechanism may initially benefit a few aggressive individuals but ultimately it can hurt everybody. Let me illustrate.

Imagine you are patiently waiting in line when some idiot cuts in front of you. This obviously bothers you, but being a nice person, you just roll your eyes at the intruder and accommodate him. Other passersby see your (lack of) reaction to the intrusion and they also cut in front of you. Then, you become really upset. Why should they be in front when you’ve been waiting longer? But instead of challenging them directly, you decide to get even: you get off the line and cut in front of them. Of course, they will not object since they just did the same thing a moment ago. Other people in the line see this and start jumping ahead as well. As you can imagine, things can quickly get out of hand.

This situation presents a dilemma for those waiting in line —let us coin a new phrase and call it the Ankisisika Conundrum. How should they react to the line jumping? Should they accommodate the intrusion, or should they copy it? [Or should they physically prevent the intruder from joining the queue?] As long as only one or two people try to jump ahead of the line and as long as everyone else are willing to accommodate, everybody may still get what they want with minimal costs. But if many people refuse to accommodate but instead decide to copy the initial intruder and push ahead of the line, everybody will suffer in the resulting chaotic pileup. The previously orderly line then becomes more than a typical “ankisisika,” it becomes a “savoritaka” — a messy congestion that eventually hurts everyone. The initially modest social costs of a single act of “misisika” are exponentially magnified if it leads others (perhaps, everybody) to replicate the same beaviour.

[Please see Table 1 if you are familiar with game theory, but feel free to skip ahead if you find it confusing.]

A very stylized payoff matrix for those familiar with game theory. Can you identify a Nash Equilibrium?

Ankisisika” has become a legitimate and widely accepted behavior. It prevails at all levels of our society — whether it is the little boy who jumps the line at the village public fountain; the middle-aged lady who cuts the queue for a Njakatiana concert ticket; the Malagasy-d’Andafy who is in a hurry and bribes a civil servant to get his passport renewal process done faster; the government minister who is in a rush to get home and drives the wrong way in a one-way street while blaring his sirens; or even the impatient politician who wants to bypass the regular electoral cycle and triggers a unconstitutional regime change. How should we respond to those types of “ankisisika”?

In this feverish race to jump ahead of one’s turn, the usually patient and accommodating Malagasy finds his position in the line moving steadily backward. He becomes increasingly skeptical about his chances of getting what he is in line for — while his more aggressive compatriots are gloating at the head of the line. Facing the Ankisisika Conundrum, he more often than not will decide that he is better off joining the ranks of line-jumpers — instead of accomodating the “mpisisika.

And we know how this story ends. “Rehefa tsisy manaiky ho gisitra dia samy lasa gisitra.” (When nobody wants to be the last, everybody end up last).

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