Gym Etiquette, Risk Management and Social Credit

Woman exercise workout at gym fitness training sport with kettlebell weight lifting and legs squat healthy lifestyle bodybuilding.

As I was working out at my gym recently, my thoughts turned to social credit regimes, transparency and risk analysis.  I beg your indulgence.

Like most totems of civilized society, gym etiquette is on the wane.  A fuller explication of the widespread barbarism and wanting couth evident on the typical gym floor is worthy of its own essay, but in this context, I had reason to reflect upon the various unspoken rituals observed in fitness club environments. 

While not quite an unadulterated demonstration of the “tragedy of the commons”, with today’s topic there are elements of it present: primarily, how self-interested use of a shared resource degrades its value (as gyms are privately-owned and not a depletable resource, the analogy is imperfect).  This manifests on a weight room floor through a lack of mindfulness – monopolizing machines, placing one’s personal items on equipment when not in use, not wiping down sweat from a station after finishing a workout, and the like.  If gym-goers were to wear t-shirts advertising their gym conduct, their jerseys would likely indicate they belong to one of two camps: the “Two Sets and Out” team vs. the “I’ll Be Camped Out All Day” crew.  I am decidedly in the former group.

As I’ve observed this phenomenon in real time, and even in how I’ve framed it in the paragraphs above, I’ve had cause to reexamine my libertarian sensibilities.  Believers in liberty appreciate that personal preferences vary and that to the extent other people’s behavior is lawful and does not result in material negative externalities, it should be tolerated even when not one’s own particular cup of tea.

Of course, in practice – given the nature of the human condition – no matter how tolerant or libertarian we may profess to be, we tend to believe our way is the “right” or “best” course of action.  It makes sense –we look at the world through the prism of our own experience, and as a practical matter it’s difficult to project ourselves into someone else’s position and discern why our way may not be right for them.  Even when we acknowledge as an intellectual matter it’s not typically possible for us to know what is better for other people than they themselves do, our gut instinct is to believe that they should live as we do.  It takes extraordinary discipline and personal maturity to override this instinct. 

In fact, mastering the impulse to act on the certitude that we know better for others than they do for themselves may be the greatest cultural challenge of our age.

Back to the gym.  My desire is that other members behave as I do – doing their two or three sets and moving on, because I believe parking on the equipment for long stretches is selfish and inconsiderate of others.  Taking a dispassionate libertarian-hued mindset, I will concede that they may be isolating a muscle group and that it’s more efficient to remain at a particular machine or station for an extended period.  But my first reaction is “that’s not how I work out”, with their behavior inhibiting my ability to use the machine when, and in the sequence, I prefer to use it.

How to square the circle between maximizing my own utility while respecting the preferences of others? 

A practical mitigant is transparency.  It occurred to me that I what I really want (within reason) is to know what I’m dealing with: will Joe get off this machine after a set or two (in which case I can check my phone while I wait a few minutes), or will he spend half the morning on it, possibly alternating sets with one of his gym bros?  Will Jane remove her items from the massage table so I can stretch post-workout, or is its highest and best use at the moment a resting place for her sweatshirt and keys?  While I may not always like what I’m faced with, the more information I have available, the better I can adapt.

Information, of course, is essential to thoughtful decision making.  But can information ever be bad?  This was when I started to ponder China’s social credit system, a poorly-understood initiative that extends the traditional role of credit rating agencies – like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s – to create a uniform framework for assessing the trustworthiness of individuals, companies and governmental agencies.  Supporters of social credit claim that it helps to regulate behavior, overcome distrust and promote traditional values; critics fear that when combined with the tools of the surveillance state, it can be used to suppress dissent, degrade citizens’ zone of privacy and violate human and civil rights.

The foundational principle of social credit schemes is that risk is better assessed by looking beyond solely objective metrics – as in the case of traditional credit risk analysis – and taking into account behavior as seen through a wider lens.  A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by the state treasurer of Utah took issue with Standard and Poor’s extending its municipal credit rating criteria to include environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards, which he asserted “blur(s) the distinction between subjective judgments and objective financial assessments”.  The introduction of subjective standards into risk assessment infuses political considerations into what should be clear-eyed and objective financial analysis.

Aside from their obvious subjectivity (which decreases their utility), introducing politicized standards into commercial and other relationships and interactions invites their misuse and takes what is characterized as a 360-degree, holistic risk assessment and uses the information so gathered to disfavor outgroups, repress freedom and limit discourse.  Social credit principles can be observed in the Biden Administration’s recently-formed (and now paused) Disinformation Governance Board and its hyper-partisan, erstwhile executive director Nina Jankowicz, who has proposed that blue-check verification on Twitter should be limited as many who are currently verified are “not trustworthy”. 

As a general matter, more information and disclosure are better than less.  That said, social credit schemes are an illiberal application of a commercial construct (credit ratings) useful only within well-defined contexts, and extends it to a wider spectrum of human behavior.  Financial credit scores are meaningful as they have predictive utility based upon an analysis of the past experience of large populations.  As the Utah Treasurer’s op-ed noted, incorporating wider, subjective considerations like ESG into a calculation of financial risk not only does not provide useful information, its lack of objectivity and offers judgments as to what is normative behavior. But whose judgment? 

And the gym?  Might hogging equipment result in a lower social credit score?

Perhaps the “parable of the weight bench” helped clarify in my own mind that the most I can reasonably wish for is useful information, and accept that the only person’s behavior I can control is my own – as the last thing I’d ever want to see is others’ (or my) behavior scored by a social credit regime.  Equinox, are you listening?  Let’s get those t-shirts printed up stat!

Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.