This article is in a superposition of tongue-in-cheek and tongue straight in the mouth. (That's a Norwegian expression meaning "to concentrate on something difficult".) If you read it, please report your experimental observation of which it is, so that we can determine the amplitudes of the two states. However, I am actually making a serious point: Why do we have this non-optimal norm, and can we change it? 



Gyms, at least the ones I've been in, seem to have a norm that each user should wipe his own sweat off the machine he just used. This is obviously inefficient. Consider that there are two kinds of users: Sensible, rational people (SRPs) who don't give a damn about other people's sweat on the machine; and finicky fussbudget frumpy failures (4Fs) (names chosen at random out of a hat, and completely unrelated to my own opinion on the point) who are too precious to have anyone else's sweat in their immediate vicinity; it's not as though they're going to shower after their exercise, right? Anyway. Under the existing norm, everyone has to clean once per machine use, but only the 4Fs are getting any utilons. Clearly, if we switch to a norm that everyone optionally cleans the machine they're about to use, then the SRPs are saved some work, while the 4Fs still get to use clean machines. This is an obvious Pareto improvement. Moreover, it's also a Nash equilibrium (and, incidentally, the current norm is a puzzling failure of the usual rule of thumb that social arrangements are Nash equilibria - why have we chosen this particular activity as one where we put effort into pushing people away from the equilibrium?) since nobody can improve his situation by cleaning the machine after using it, or failing to clean beforehand. 

Please spread the word of this obvious improvement in gym-users' quality of life! Also, please push society towards the Nash equilibrium by defecting from the current norm: Either clean your machine before, not after, using it, or else don't clean it at all. If anyone challenges you, give them a quick lecture on economics - this has the added benefit of making you popular with the opposite sex. 

Some possible objections:

1. My mother taught me to clean up after myself.

And imagine how much more pleasant your childhood would have been, if only you'd known about Nash equilibria and Pareto improvements! However, not all is lost: You can still try to convince your SO or roommate that the one who cares most about mess should be the one to clean it up. 

2. My utility function has a term for not making others do work.

Also, apparently, for signalling your concern for others. The total amount of work done is rather less in my proposed new equilibrium. Suggest you update accordingly. 

3. I prefer cleaning up my own sweat to cleaning that of others.

Have you considered the benefits of self-modifying to be more masochistic? Today's society offers all kinds of opportunities for turning yourself on, if only you could take advantage! This could actually be more efficient than taking a pill that makes you bisexual, since you can only sleep with so many people in one lifetime anyway. Repeat after me: Thank you for making me clean the machine, Master! Please may I clean another? There, do you feel the surge of hormones? 

4. If I have to clean the machine, everyone else should too!

Until the rest of society has self-modified to be sufficiently masochistic to derive pleasure from your dominance, you should not attempt to impose it on them. This aside, have you considered the benefits of suggesting suitable punishments for anyone who doesn't clean their machine? Aren't they being rather naughty? Many exciting encounters may result from this handy ice-breaker! 

5. My gym doesn't have that norm.

Excellent! Please spread the word. Today your gym, tomorrow mine! 

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:03 PM

A standard question: do you know if this or something similar has been attempted before, and if so, how it went?

I don't belong to a gym, so I won't comment on changing norms, but as far as the tone of this post goes, I have some trouble distinguishing this between "tongue firmly in cheek" and "condescending mockery". I suspect it would be easier to tell if I knew you better.

It's been nearly a decade since I last used a machine in a gym, but I have a vague recollection that things there worked the way you're proposing. I might be wrong, though.

If anyone challenges you, give them a quick lecture on economics - this has the added benefit of making you popular with the opposite sex.

ISTM that stuff like that only works with people with very high IQ and/or Openness to Experience. (That's not necessarily a bad thing, though.)

My tongue was particularly firmly in my cheek when writing that sentence. Still, if you encounter the sort of person-of-appropriate-gender who would actually stop and listen to your explanation, that would be a very strong signal of worthwhileness.

My gym has spray bottles filled with some sort of cleaner for wiping down equipment which probably leads to a lot fewer people getting sick than what you're suggesting. I propose spreading my norm instead.

Your tone in this post makes me want to tell you to go die in a fire. Since I feel this way, it must be correct, and anyone who disagrees is a Silly Stupid Sludge-brained SonofaBitch. Since I came up with a long phrase to describe an unknown quantity of people who feel a certain way, they can safely be dismissed. Therefore, it's a Pareto improvement. Now go jump in a fire.

Without the first paragraph I would have interpreted this as a satire on how quickly epistemic rationality can fail when faced with even the most trivial social norm.

I kinda like this.

I don't know whether wiping one's sweat from a gym machine helps limit the spread of sickness, or if it is basically a matter of eliminating yucky-ness. If the former, I'd say sticking with the current norm is better, and I might even suggest a "wipe down before AND after your use" rule of thumb. If the latter, I'd say an update along the lines you suggest is at least reasonable to consider, as individual tolerance for yucky-ness of this type is quite subjective. It's just sweat...

I don't have that sort of norm-propagating power at any gym I've frequented. This should be directed at the Gym Czar.

Last time when I used to go to a gym, the norm was to sit/lie on a towel and keep the equipment clean that way. I think that is the best way. After that, I think cleaning up after yourself is better. It prevents the sweat from soaking in and discoloring the upholstery and being more difficult to clean. Also I like the opportunity to signal concern for others, at no great cost. ;-p

Is the point that being a "gentleman" and wiping your seat may have "efficiency" value but lack decency value?