Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hierarchy versus Fairness in the Happiest Place on Earth

The last place on earth people would think about hierarchy is a theme park. In fact, most people don’t think about hierarchy at all unless it is violated. It’s a biological constant. Everyone was born with the rules hard-wired into their brain. No human consciously developed those rules. They are the result of an evolutionary process that – if you include our first mammalian ancestor - took about six million years. The modern form of humans only evolved about 200,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and the industrialized world didn’t exist until the 1800s.

The rules must have evolved early, because without them, we would never have survived.
Humans are social beings. We depend on each other and have become the dominant species on the planet because we can cooperate to achieve a goal. Hierarchy is the mechanism that makes that possible. Put ten strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes.  It’s a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time. But knowing where we stand in the group—any group—enables us to function most efficiently.  We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because that standing shifts constantly.

Few people visit theme parks alone. It is a social experience. In theme parks, every family or friendship group contains its own hierarchy, and each group operates surrounded by other group hierarchies.  Throughout a day in the park, in moving around the park, the positioning of each group member shifts to best cope with new circumstances.

Husbands and fathers usually make the logistical decisions, whereas wives and mothers have veto power. Mothers tend to be the financial, relationship, and health monitors for the group.  Always children are influencers. We do this intuitively as something we rarely think about unless forced to.  That’s most often when the unspoken norms have been violated.

When Disney was testing one of their first GPS-based devices for navigating Walt Disney World parks, they offered select guest families the opportunity to test the device. While ridiculously large by today’s standards, these were the latest technology of the era. In order to participate, guests were asked to put a refundable $25 charge on their credit card. The Imagineers didn’t want the money, they just wanted to ensure they got the device back so they could interpret the data.

What surprised the Imagineers was while the father and the children were the most interested in the device, it was the mother who carried it. She would show the screen to the husband and children, but never let it out of her hand. This went against all their expectations. Focus groups had found it was males who were the most interested in the new technology. Female interest was near zero.  So why were the mothers the ones carrying and using the device?

They finally asked us.

The answer was simple – Disney had 25 dollars of their money on hold. Mom wasn’t about to let a careless child break it -- and “child” included Dad! For the family finances, she ruled at the top of the hierarchy.

Hierarchy comes with a set of norms that are never stated but understood intuitively by the group. In the GPS survey, Mom was the responsible party and Dad and the kids simply accepted this without discussion. Unless you understand what the norms are, you will experience surprise pushback.  Theme parks create scores of temporary hierarchies throughout the park—we just aren’t used to thinking about them in that way.

The queue—either straight or switchback—creates an instant hierarchy. Your group holds a physical position in that queue. Other groups are ahead of you, and others behind. It is understood that the people ahead get to go on the ride first, while you get to go before the people behind you.

Which brings us to a cultural concept called Fairness. This is a peculiarly American belief.  In our daily lives, Americans are not interested as much in justice (a legal construct) as in being treated fairly. Guests in theme parks will endure a ridiculously long wait only because everyone else in the line is treated to the same wait length. That may be uncomfortable, but it is fair as equal discomfort under the law of fairness for all.

However, that sense of fairness disappears when the line – and the guest’s place in the hierarchy – is disrupted. Once you build a switchback (that long folded-over holding snake line), that sequence hierarchy must hold right up to the attraction entry.

But often it doesn’t. Sometimes it holds up but just until it feeds into a large holding area, particularly for theater attractions. The anteroom holds the number of audience members the theater was designed for, and it usually features some preshow attractions to engage guest interest as the inevitable countdown clock signals the approaching minutes until the theater doors open. This system seems logical until you create a serious violation of the fairness ethic.  In this case, it is this: once within the wide-open pre-show lobby, where the line formation breaks apart, guests from behind can and will move past you to position themselves by the theater door, symbolically claiming the first seating. That’s a line system designed to violate the social fairness rule.

In fact, there may not actually be any seating at all in the attraction. You may enter a standup theater where all the viewing positions are pretty much equal – but the guest standing in line doesn’t necessarily realize that.

It doesn’t even matter that you may supply plenty of signage informing them of what’s ahead; most people don’t read such advisories, nor absorb the information even if they do. There are only a few places in any attraction where people are primed to receive and accept information as they progress through. The remainder just doesn’t get noticed or absorbed.

All the guest knows is that the park just violated the social contract—that tacit understanding established with the guest—made when you funneled them into the initial switchback.

They feel cheated, because they know they have been treated unfairly. You forced them into a choice they did not expect to be making—either view the preshow or make a dash for the theater door.  Either choice means taking a loss—and human beings hate even the idea of loss.

People are not risk averse - they are loss averse. Loss aversion is a cognitive default common to all human beings. In fact, our decisions are driven more often to avoid loss than to achieve gain. The only thing we hate more than loss is uncertainty. We try to avoid that at all costs.

With only the guests’ best interests at heart, the attraction designers just forced them into a situation of both loss and uncertainty.

It won’t matter that when they actually enter the theater they then realize they haven’t really lost anything. That unfairness emotion will dominate and color the memory of the entire experience.

And the solution is so simple. Park guests are perfectly happy to get out of the elements into a climate-controlled lobby… so design the pre-show in a way that it can be seen and enjoyed from the emotional safety of the switchback line and just continue that line the full distance up to the loading door.  Minimize transitions that introduce status anxiety.

This is a simple but unfortunately common occurrence. There are a number of other transactions where establishing a hierarchy comes with an implicit operational understanding by the guest--an understanding that gets violated further along in the process.

Take FastPass systems, developed after the timed-ticket approach created by museums for their blockbuster exhibits. Insert your park ticket into the slot; out comes a timed ticket for the attraction. Go on your way and stop back at the FastPass express lane when the ticket is due.

This all works fine—unless the fast lane loads right beside the regular lane. It doesn’t matter that the people in the “slow” lane had the very same opportunity to get their own FastPass.  Emotionally, they are responding with social envy and resentment to the fairness equation, to the very visible fact that those “fast” folks are boarding the boat in front of them.  It looks and feels unfair.  Americans are acutely sensitive to such “class” distinctions, because we aren’t a fixed-class society—that is, you are not destined to remain in the class you are born into.

Is this logical? No.  Emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense. There is not nearly the same envy reaction if you were to load the FastPass crowd at an out-of-sight location, which could be just steps away or around the bend-- so long as the slower crowd doesn’t have to see it happening.   Use the discreet measure of keeping the class difference out of sight.

A parallel problem emerged when the handicapped were loaded first – not just solo, but accompanied by their extended family.  Grandma would be wheeled up to the gate in the company of a dozen clearly able-bodied family members, who would all be loaded before other in-line guests.

People didn’t have a problem with grandma. But they did have a real problem with her entire entourage becoming instantly advantaged because of family ties.

The new rule—fairer to the guest— now seems to be to park grandma with a family member at the handicapped gate. The rest of the family joins in the normal line, and at the point when the group reaches the attraction, grandma and handler join them. What could be fairer than that? 

Understanding the interplay of hierarchy and fairness is essential knowledge as you build new hierarchies within the park with options like Magic Bands, team games, special tours, priority passes, and new attractions with new timing, spacing, and pathways.

It also makes life outside the parks easier to understand.



  1. Another flash of Brilliance from the Good Doctah King...Thank you!

  2. Another place where hierarchies are clearly defined is in the line up to board a plane. Most people seem resigned to this sheep and goats separation, and most of us hope the gate agents will enforce their own systems fairly, but it is definitely an unpleasant experience factor in airline travel. thanks for this article--enjoyed it!