Essay for A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior

So, I’ve been taking this Coursera course by Dan Ariely called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”. One of the assignments was to write a 500-800 word essay on a bad behavior and how to apply the lessons from the class to make people improve their behavior. Here’s my essay:

Fitness centers or gyms are typically divided into rooms or areas for different purposes: cardiovascular exercise using equipment like treadmills, free weight areas for weightlifting, rooms for different types of group exercise, locker rooms for changing, and so forth. One behavioral problem often encountered in gyms is in the free weight area, where gym users frequently fail to remove weight plates from the equipment after use—”re-racking” weights. Failure to re-rack causes inconvenience to others, who have to unrack the weights before they can use the equipment. The problem of racked weight abandoment gives gym users a negative experience that reduces their overall satisfaction with their gym, which is especially prominent for novice weightlifters.

Racked weight abandoment is against the rules in gyms, and gym management usually make at least some effort to miminize this behavior. A common practice is posting a sign in the weight area notifying gym users that they are obligated to re-rack their weights. Less common is paying employees to continuously patrol the free weight area and un-rack weights left on machines. High-end fitness centers do this because maintaining a clean look in their fitness areas is something they are willing to pay for, even if it results in some people feeling entitled to abandon unracked weights.

The “please re-rack weights” sign gets ignored after the first few times someone uses the gym, and probably has little impact on the re-racking rate. Also, such signs are universally found and so only provide social clues of expected behavior to people who have never used free weights before. Further, since unracked weight abandonment is so common, many people assume the social norm is to abandon unracked weights despite the presence of the sign indicating the rule.

From the week 2 lectures, we learned that people have a tendency to act in a dishonest way, such as not re-racking weights when you are supposed to, when they believe that you can get away with it, when they perceive the social norm that others also violate the rule, and when they only do it a little bit—it’s within their fudge factor, and they can still think of themselves as good people, even though they broke the rule.

If there were a way to remind users each time they use the gym of their obligation to re-rack weights, then the rate of racked weight abandonment might drop. I propose adding a re-racking honor code step to the gym sign-in process. Most gyms have some kind of sign-in process to ensure that the users of the facility are permitted to use it. If management adds a step requiring users to check a box and sign their name when they sign in, acknowledging the re-racking rule, this might reduce the rate of racked weight abandoment. I hypothesize that the racked weight abandonment rate will reduce because of the introduction of a moral reminder. This is similar to the experiment where people were reminded about honor codes just prior to being given an opportunity to cheat, and this significantly reduced the incidents of cheating (Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D., 2008 pp. 15-16).

To test this, we could construct an experiment similar to the one used in Israeli childcare centers (Gneezy, U., & Rustichini, A. 2000), where new policies designed to reduce unwanted behavior were introduced at real, existing facilities to see how the policies affected behavior. We would need to find several gyms willing to take part in an experiment. First, we would measure racked weight abandonment rates in the gym over the period of a few weeks as a baseline before introducing the new step. Then, in a subset of gyms participating, we would introduce a new step to the sign-in process requiring users to acknowledge the re-racking policy every time they sign in to the gym. Once the policy was in place, we would measure how the racked weight abandonment rate tracked over the next few weeks.

There are some pototential problems with this solution. First is that gym management may have several behavioral issues with gym users and racked weight abandonment might not be their biggest problem, and will be unwilling to inconvenience all their customers by requiring them to sign an acknowledgment before using the facility. Second is that drawing attention to to the racked weight abandonment problem may make actually worsen the problem as people might rebel against the policy, or just being more consciously aware of how many others violate the policy may make them feel like it is more socially acceptable.

If there were published work showing that such a policy were effective at reducing racked weight abandonment, gyms might consider implementing the policy and increasing the satisfaction of their customers.

I got 9/9 on the essay based on peer reviews, with the following comments:

peer 3 → Very nice!
peer 4 → Well-written piece with a workable solution – the daily log-in register could carry a statement to sign against. More ideas could be mined from the dishonesty experiments e.g. have someone wearing a rival team/state/country’s fan shirt behave irresponsibly, interrupt the music for a ‘shout-out’ to someone (another shill maybe) who followed the unracking rule etc.

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