Pay to go first?

23 January 2017

If you are on a waiting list or in a queue, you have to patiently wait your turn, whether you are in a hurry or not. Your place on the list or in the queue is yours, earned by your waiting. Yet you are not allowed to sell your position. What would happen if you were allowed to do so? Anouar El Haji set out to find an answer to this question in his doctoral research. He will receive his PhD from the University of Amsterdam on Friday 3 February.

In his research, El Haji focuses on property rights by studying consumers' intuitive response to the concept. In a number of sub-studies, he examines how consumers deal with 'unconventional goods' in various contexts, such as music and texts, but also someone's position in a waiting list.

Waiting is not as bad

In a laboratory experiment, El Haji gave people the opportunity to sell their number 1 spot on a waiting list. 'The person at the top was allowed to sell their place to the person at the bottom, for example. Those on the waiting list between the first and the last place were not disadvantaged, since nothing changed for them. They kept their place', El Haji explains with regard to the experiment. 'It turns out that introducing the option of trading places makes the list more efficient: people who benefit the most from it do not have to wait as long.' El Haji's findings also indicate that the 'waiting experience' of those waiting is improved. 'Psychologically speaking, they experience stronger ownership of their position, which makes them "happier" with their position on the waiting list.'

Queues are often unavoidable for practical, ethical or legal reasons. 'Such a system that allows trading places could work very well with parking permits, for example. It could be unethical in other contexts, however, such as in health care.'

Hating to lose

In one of his other sub-studies, El Haji investigated how the moral distinction can be explained that people draw between piracy and theft. He posits that an extension of the theory referred to as loss aversion theory provides a new explanation of why consumers tend to engage in piracy more easily than in theft. Loss aversion is the tendency to lend more weight to loss than to profit when making decisions. El Haji: 'The loss of a euro, for example, has greater psychological impact than finding a euro does. Loss aversion research tends to concentrate on the influence of decisions on the decision-maker. I have extended the loss aversion theory by taking second persons into account, persons who directly experience the consequences of the other's decision. Stealing a euro implies that the second person loses a euro, for example. Piracy only involves loss of profits, which is more abstract than a loss which is felt directly.'

Experiments where El Haji gave consumers the choice between stealing or piracy confirm that consumers are more likely to engage in piracy than in theft, and that an article having a higher price made piracy relatively more attractive than theft. 'This indicates that the moral distinction between theft and piracy is psychological in nature, and therefore difficult to deal with. It also explains why information campaigns to stop piracy have proven ineffective', says El Haji.

PhD details

Anouar El Haji: Experimental Studies on the Psychology of Property Rights. Supervisors: Professor Willemijn van Dolen and Professor Joep Sonnemans.

Time and venue

The PhD conferral ceremony will take place on Friday 3 February at 11:00.
Location: UvA Auditorium, Singel 411, Amsterdam.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting