When you borrow a ‘7-day loan’ book from the university library and fail to return it before the 7 days are up, you are forced to pay a fine of 50 pence for every day that the book is overdue.
The crux of the issue is exactly what we’ve been talking about a second ago.
If someone wanted to keep a book for longer that 7 days, all he had to do was pay a small, petty fine of 50p a day and v’oila! he bought himself some extra time.
And just like that, gone are the times of experiencing guilt for holding on to an eagerly sought out book at the expense of someone else’s intellectual enterprise and education.
The whole thing is ruled by market norms now.
50p isn’t much of a fine
But the thing with paying just 50p is misleading and takes advantage of an inherent psychological tendency that we all have.
This is how libraries earn their money for “new books”.
This natural tendency is called delay discounting which is the process of devaluing future outcomes. You can read more about that here.
Essentially, paying 50p a day is chickenfeed to most people.
But 50p on day 1 turns into £1 into £1.50 and so on…
Hold on to a book for 10 days and you have to pay £5. Then you’re thinking – where’d that fine come from?!
Funnily enough, £5 turns out to be 1/8 of the price of a new copy of that very book you’ve been nursing for ages.
We don’t care about other people, only about ourselves
Let’s face it, we’re egocentric and tend to be selfish.
On the other hand though, we’re not purely motivated by self-interest.
Behavioural research shows that we do exhibit other-regarding preferences in that we factor in other people’s interests in our decision-making.
But these preferences aren’t at the forefront of our value hierarchy.
Sad but true.
There is a solution.
A solution that would make people focus on the needs of others…
And it’s been around for millenia.
That solution is to instil feelings of guilt.
People are egocentric and look for their benefit but guilt has always been able to inspire at least a modicum of regard in those who have strayed off the path of righteousness (getting carried away here but you get the point.)
So if libraries want to help a student out, it has to be better at instilling guilt in students that are taking the mick.
How to instil guilt back
Norms are important because they’re unspoken promises we make to people in our immediate social circle.
In the good ol’ days, if someone was a deviant in the social circle, he’d be banished or killed.
So to make the student feel compelled to bring the book back (bring the bloody book back, Russell!), we need to make him realise he’s a deviant in accordance to the unspoken laws/norms that govern every student.
Sure, sure, he probably knows this already, but we need that thought to be in the forefront of his consciousness.
So send him an email which reads something along the lines of:
99% of people give the books back on time – would you like it if someone did that to you?
This informs the person of the norm (i.e. how the majority acts = norm) and plays on their emotions a bit…
This ties in with the second point:
A big theme here is to introduce empathetic imagination by putting them in the shoes of the people that are worse of for someone not bringing an overdue library book back (damnit, Russell!)
Another example that would play on empathy would be:
Please return the book as overdue books disadvantage students in their revision.
What would be even better would be to put that sentence in red.
Red attract attention and assigns urgency.
By the same token though, a lot of students don’t check these library emails and give in to the ostrich effect. Basically, they hide their head in the sand and avoid the issue (don’t you dare, Russell…)
But if you include in the email that “you could save X amount of money for returning the book on time” in the subject line, you might just get them to open the email after all.
Students taking the mick oftentimes don’t mind paying 50 pence a day for an overdue book.
Let’s face it – it’s a small price to pay for being daft.
So what about compounding the fines over time?
On day 1, the fine is 50p but on day 2 the fine increases to £1 etc.
Another thought: what about exorbitant fees?
Nobody wants to pay super high fees for a measly, chewed-up, dog-earred, nineth-hand book, right?
But this could have some unintentional effects, like encouraging malpractice where the students with the overdue books wouldn’t even bother paying the fines, returning the books, and would just vanish from the face of the Earth.
Making them experience the negative experience of holding overdue books
What about giving deceiving them into thinking that the book was overdue so that they experience the negative affect and feel like a criminal before telling them that you were joking but also add “but seriously – don’t forget to bring the book back on time yeah.”
Obviously this would raise “ethical questions” due to the deception used (still a thought, though…)
Make paying off fines a unpleasant experience
When paying off their library fines, sometimes people with overdue books rationalise that “well at least I’m helping the library with my money.”
It’s this rationalisation that doesn’t deter them from similar transgressions in the future.
So how would one go about making sure this rationalisation isn’t conjured up?
What about setting fire or shredding the money they use to pay for their fines?
Parting with hard, cold cash can be difficult, especially if you’re paying off library fees.
What if a student paying off his fines were to insert a note into a machine only to receive a fake shredded note in response?
They wouldn’t be able to rationalise that the money was going to a good cause (i.e. library) but rather was wasted because of someone’s laziness…
You could argue this puts a lot of undue stress on the student who is paying the fine. But once he’s parted with the money – what difference does it make what happens to the money?
After all – he’s parted with it and it’s no longer his.
But the downside is that no actual money is exchanged (i.e. it is taken off your student card).
I guess cash is slowly becoming archaic (not to mention unsanitary.)
Plus, now you’ve got machines where you can return your books back, so you aren’t able to experience any walk of shame as you would if you had to return the overdue books to a member of the library staff.
Trying to compromise and be on their side
Okay, the past two ideas were a bit “out there” so how about something that would be more ethically sound?
Like trying to be on their side and offer them an easy way out.
In the email remind him of the overdue book, you could write something like this in it:
“You can quietly come to school to give it back, no one will know…”
P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.
Thank you to S. Reimers for brainstorming these ideas with me. Obviously some were more on the jokey side while other more legitimate but overall it was a fun intellectual exercise I fondly look back on.