Volume 14, Number 11
December 4, 2007

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Lunchtime Chaos: An Engineering Problem or a Behavioral Dilemma?

Everyone hates having to go to lunch at 12:35, but this is frequently unavoidable. What is so critical about this specific time in the day?

As the clock approaches the hour of apocalypse, in a cafeteria of, say, 130 seats, there are about 50 seats available. Assuming an average person requires 10 to 15 minutes to finish his lunch, plus another 5 minutes to chat to a friend at the same table, by the time the first 10 people in the queue have taken their trays and turned around, it should be expected that, in addition to the 50 seats available at present, there would be at least 10 to 15 more seats available.

However, is this really so? Not at 12:35. By the time the first person in the queue has taken his tray, payed and turned around, lo and behold, there are no seats left. Table tops are now strewn with coats, jackets, backpacks, handbags, umbrellas, books, notebooks, and even sheets of paper hastily torn out of a notebook that have been placed down on the tables so that the seats now count as occupied.

The person with his tray hesitates. Are there any more seats available? Isn't that one to the far end near the window empty? Should he stop near the counter to add a bit of lemon juice to his salad? He decides not to take the chance. He cautiously tries to get past the queue of jostling people without spilling his soup. Will he finally manage it? No. By the time he emerges on the other side of the queue, the 70th person in line has already dumped a pile of books on that table, with a few of them neatly distributed over the table top in favor of others who might like to sit with him.

This is not an engineering problem. It is the same sort of behavioral dilemma encountered when someone finds an empty jug on his table. Not to worry. You only have to grab the jug full of water on the table behind you. However, not to appear to be selfish with two jugs on your table and none on the other, don't forget to put your empty jug on the table behind you.

I think that preventing "lunchtime chaos" at Bilkent is easy. Just a bit of thought and care for others will do.

Nermin Fenmen
Chair / Department of Accounting

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