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Journal Article

Queueing systems with rationally inattentive customers

Manufacturing and Service Operations Management 25 (1): 266–287
Caner Canyakmaz, Tamer Boyaci (2023)
Management sciences, decision sciences and quantitative methods
Service operations, rational inattention, strategic customers, rational queueing, information costs, system throughput, social welfare
Problem description: Classical models of queueing systems with rational and strategic customers assume queues to be either fully visible or invisible while service parameters are known with certainty. In practice, however, people only have “partial information” on the service environment in the sense that they are not able to fully discern prevalent uncertainties. This is because assessing possible delays and rewards is costly as it requires time, attention, and cognitive capacity which are all limited. On the other hand, people are also adaptive and endogenously respond to information frictions. Methodology: We develop an equilibrium model for a single-server queueing system with customers having limited attention. Following the theory of rational inattention, we assume that customers optimize their learning strategies by deciding the type and amount of information to acquire and act accordingly while internalizing the associated costs. Results: We establish the existence and uniqueness of a customer equilibrium and delineate the impact of service characteristics and information costs. We numerically show that when customers allocate their attention to learn uncertain queue length, limited attention of customers improves throughput in a congested system that customers value reasonably highly, while it can be detrimental for less popular services that customers deem rather unrewarding. This is also reflected in social welfare if the firm's profit margin is high enough, although customer welfare always suffers from information costs. Managerial implications: Our results shed light on optimal information provision and physical design strategies of service firms and social planners by identifying service settings where they should be most cautious for customers' limited attention. Academic/practical relevance: We propose a microfounded framework for strategic customer behavior in queues that links beliefs, rewards, and information costs. It offers a holistic perspective on the impact of information prevalence (and information frictions) on operational performance and can be extended to analyze richer customer behavior and complex queue structures, rendering it a valuable tool for service design.
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