If The Queue is good enough for David Beckham…
Belief systems enjoy a huge boost if high-status people are willing to make sacrifices for them
Watching the scenes of people lining up to pay their respects to the late Queen, I’ve felt a growing sense of guilt and shame that I haven't joined The Queue. This is how it must have felt like in August 1914, with everyone I know already signed up to fight for King and Country while I’m still in London, feigning injury or pretending to be 17, or however else I imagine myself behaving in such a situation.
I didn’t really think anything of it until I saw David Beckham paying his respects. Beckham, to those people in strange lands where they don’t like football, is a former Manchester United and England superstar and at one point one of the biggest sporting names in the world. A well-connected multi-millionaire, Beckham was offered the chance to take the VIP shortcut but instead chose to queue 13 hours to pay his respects to the Queen.
Queuing is supposedly a typical British trait, something we’re hugely fond of. Sometimes I’m in a foreign country and I’ll see another British person and we’ll just start a queue together, just for the sake of it. And right now, millions of people (including many from abroad) are waiting for up to 24 hours in order to file past Elizabeth II’s coffin. The numbers in central London are now so large that people are being urged to stay away; hundreds have been treated by paramedics, mostly for fainting. The Queue has grown so great as to actually have its own weather forecast.
From a rational point of view, it sounds like a costly waste of time — huge numbers of people spending an entire day doing nothing productive. But the benefit is most likely huge, if intangible.
Social capital — what most people would call trust across society as a whole — is harder to measure than GDP but it is probably among the most important things in your life; it determines whether you feel safe from police or criminals, how easy it is to get your utilities working or a business set up, how likely you are to have a political system with a smooth handover of power and loser’s consent. Social capital is the difference between America and Russia. The ability and willingness to queue is an obvious signal of high social capital.
People miss the point when they object to The Queue, by arguing that they could have saved people the hassle and inconvenience. The long wait is an ordeal, but that’s the point. The whole purpose is to suffer. Queueing for the Queen is what evolutionary psychologists call a CRED, credibility-enhancing displays designed to strengthen faith in the communal belief.
In WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich wrote about the successes of western societies and the importance of social capital. Humans evolved to live in groups of 150 or so, but as they began to upscale 10,000 or so years ago, from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society) they could only hold together with the help of some common religion, an idea for which they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for.
‘To more effectively instil deep commitments to professed beliefs,’ Henrich wrote, the new religions harnessed Credibility-Enhancing Displays or CREDs, ‘actions that attest to people’s underlying beliefs.’
Successful religions entail personal sacrifice for the group, but this brings the risk that there are ‘individuals who might convey false beliefs to us for their own benefit. CREDs thus evolved to act as a kind of immune system against charlatans and purveyors of snake oil. Relying on CREDs would have become especially important after the emergence of complex languages, which would have given influential individuals the ability to cheaply spread false information or maladaptive beliefs for their own benefit. By using CREDs, especially for potentially costly beliefs, individuals can filter out true convictions from efforts at manipulation.’
Christianity’s rise was heavily aided by CREDs. ‘In 394 CE, for example, the super-rich Roman aristocrat Pontius Paulinus announced that he would follow Jesus’s advice and give all of his wealth to the poor. Later that year in Barcelona, Paulinus was ordained a priest by popular acclaim. Such costly actions, especially when done by prestigious individuals like Paulinus, operate on our psychology as Credibility Enhancing Displays.
‘Early Church leaders, including Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Martin of Tours, all recognized the power of Paulinus’ demonstration, and immediately pro- moted him as a paragon. Martin apparently went around exclaiming, “There is someone to imitate.”’
These examples were especially powerful because they came from aristocrats, for CREDs are far more effective if high-status people endure them. In the Middle Ages baronial families were prominent in giving daughters to convents, and in the First World War the upper class suffered disproportionate losses in the trenches. David Beckham is a rich and popular sports star who could spend his day doing pretty much whatever he liked, so his decision to queue with the general public is a powerful CRED for the monarchy.
The most prominent CREDs are Ramadan and Lenten fasts, the Hajj and Christian pilgrimages, and it’s the latter which the Queue most resembles. They are difficult, an inconvenience and a torment, and the result is a group far more bonded and trusting than before; this feeling of shared endurance is why so many people enjoy the Camino, since physical discomfort is for most people far more manageable than loneliness.