No-show fees, guilt & exercise adherence

If you’ve read the book ‘Predicatably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely (if you haven’t I strongly recommend it) (1), you’ll remember a chapter where he discusses monetization of social relationships. Besides mentioning incredibly awkward examples, like offering your mother-in-law cash for cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, he describes a study involving Israeli daycare centres that were frustrated by parents who were constantly late to pick up their children (2). Obviously this was a great inconvenience to the staff, as it made them late for their own obligations, so to combat the time-challenged parents, they instituted a fee for any late pickup to motivate the time-challenged parents to be on time. Unfortunately for the daycare workers, the fee which was intended to motivate the chronically late parents to be on time did the exact opposite, and even more parents were late to pick up their children.

Social vs Market norms

While the original paper sums up the effect well, Ariely does so in simple terms. By introducing money into the equation, which the daycare workers thought would improve behaviour, actually reduced the social obligation (feeling guilty about being late) and replaced it with market norms, allowing the parents to essentially buy a clean conscience. And unfortunately once the social norm (sense of obligation) is replaced with the market norm (late fee), it is often difficult to go back, as once the fee was removed the parents were still more likely to be late to pick up their children.

Do fines for missed sessions reduce exercise adherence?

In the personal-training industry I’ve heard the complaint that trainers are often treated as under-paid therapists, a place where clients go to train but more often vent about their day. While obviously this is a distraction from training, maybe this social relationship could serve a larger role in promoting exercise adherence than the fees charged for missed sessions do. If what we learned from the daycare scenario holds true, the no-show fee removes the social obligation to attend the session. By simply paying the fee the client removes the guilt that would normally be associated with skipping the session and can sleep easy at night. Adding insult to injury in the original study, once the fine was removed, the tardy behaviour of the parents was maintained (or even increased) and did not return to the levels seen before the fine existed. Does this mean that charging a client for missing a session only serves to increase the likelihood of them missing another?

Personal training likely represents the ultimate challenge in balancing social and market norms. If you thought balancing relationship-building with your clients while maintaining training intensity was bad enough, now you have to worry about how these relationships spill over into your billing. From a financial perspective, obviously any trainer would want reimbursement for the loss of time when a client misses a session but thinking about the balance between market and social norms, it might be better to take the hit and drop the no-show fee and potentially increase exercise adherence and client attendance in the long term.

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