How to Use Psychology to Cut in Line at the Airport

On my last trip home from San Francisco, I was standing in the longer-than-usual security line at SFO, patiently waiting my turn, when I heard a lady asking people if she could cut in line “because she’s going to miss her flight.”

As she moved along, I noticed that her ability to pass people rapidly accelerated as she progressed and she was through security in no time.

Once past security, she turned around and yelled “Thank you kind humans!”

Now I knew — having read Robert Cialdini’s Influence book many times — and having had the opportunity to study with him in Phoenix — that she was able to blow through the extra-long line for several reasons.

Request + Reason

First, she didn’t just ask to cut in line, she added “because I’m going to miss my flight” to the request. Cialdini refers to this as a “request + reason” and has proven that this significantly increases the possibility of a positive outcome when asking for something.

Social Proof

Second, if she just got the first couple of people to let her through — which the “request + reason” almost ensured would happen — the rest of the people would comply quickly, this time due to Cialdini’s social proof principle.

The first people she asked to let her cut didn’t have the pressure of social proof forcing them to conform, but they where already at the end of the line, so far from security that losing a spot would really have no noticeable consequence for them.

Because it was easy to get these initial folks to comply with her request, they were the seed that the snowball was built around, giving her momentum as she moved through the line.

I suspect that if she had walked up to the middle or front of the line (as it snaked around) and asked to jump in, no matter how charming, the lack of the “snowball effect” providing momentum — and the fact that “one spot” meant a lot more that close to security — may have rendered her request moot.

Everyone behind the person that might let her in would be upset because they hadn’t already let her pass… they would feel slighted, and the social proof in play — plus the dagger stares — may have kept that from happening.

Action Required

Okay, cool, so all of that psychology is super-awesome — and understanding how this stuff works can totally transform your business, marketing,… or life if you’ll let it — but there’s one more principal at work here that is absolutely required for even Cialdini’s rules to come into play and it’s the crux of this entire article.

One thing I noticed as this lady made her way past all of us was the look on their faces; disbelief. It was actually shocking to them that she was moving past them. The audacity? The guts? The nerve?

Whatever it was, they couldn’t believe that she was moving past with ease while they stood still.

But she asked if she could cut in line.

She took action.

She took action that — apparently — no one else, me included — was willing to do.

And she won. She beat us all through security, though she started at the very end of the line.

But she flew past us… through the entire security line in under 5 minutes.

While it’s great to know why this worked psychologically — just like it’s great to know why anything works — nothing works unless you take action.

Remember that the next time you see your competitor blow past you or see other founders getting all sorts of traction/accolades/funding/etc. while you just watch them pass by.

While they took action, you stood there in disbelief.


Oh, and “Thank you kind humans” was a pretty cool gesture that invoked yet another of Cialdini’s principles… reciprocity.

She positively reinforced (closed the feedback loop) the actions we all took in letting her pass, increasing the already-high probability (due to another Cialdini rule: Consistency + Commitment) that we’ll let her cut in line again. Well-played, ma’am.

I talk about a lot of different strategies and tactics around SaaS Marketing, Pricing, Growth Hacking, etc. on my Sixteen Ventures site — including the use of psychology for those purposes.

I help grow SaaS companies at Gainsight by focusing on Customer Success. Follow me on Twitter @lincolnmurphy.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

About Lincoln Murphy

I am a Customer Success Consultant focused on Customer Success-driven Growth. I wrote the Customer Success book which you can buy at Amazon. If you need help applying Customer Success-driven Growth principles in your company or would like me to speak at your event, please contact me. Also, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.