Suffering Your Own Penalties

Via Arts and Letters Daily, there is an intriguing article in Reason Magazine about how penalties for undesirable behavior can actually result in more poor behavior if people perceived paying the penalty as license to continue.

Citing a study in Science, Ronald Bailey gives the example of six Israel day cares who instituted a fee to penalize people who pick their children up late. Instead of solving the problem, this made it worse.

According to Bowles: “The fine seems to have undermined the parents’ sense of ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as just another commodity they could purchase.”

The same thing happened in an experiment in Columbia. Researchers were conducting a game where people were involved with divvying up forest resources. The results of many scenarios reflected concern for the resources and other users until a situation that simulated government control fined those who overused their alloted share. People felt paying the fine justified pursuing their short term interests rather than the interests of the whole.

I tried to think of ways the arts might be providing disincentives for their audiences to act in the interests of the organization, audience or community through what they perceive to be penalties. I haven’t really thought of anything but maybe something will occur to you readers.

First thing that came to mind were the ticket fees we charge for buying tickets online or over the phone but might not charge if people come to the window. Or that we charge a lower price for subscriptions and buying single tickets before a certain date.

But neither of these things seem to create an incentive for people to buy early. I don’t think it creates a disincentive either. I think people are just busy and have changed their buying practices.

Next I wondered if holding people in the lobby for late seating hoping they, (and those they annoy when they are seated), are discomforted enough that they arrive promptly next time might have some unintended consequences. It is easy to foresee that both late comers and those seated are likely to be annoyed by the timing of the late seating interval even if it has reduced 14 potential interruptions to one. No surprise there.

It is likewise easy to anticipate reactions to policies like; No food in theatre, no exchanges or refunds, no video taping and no cell phones. Perhaps no cell phone policies and signal jammers may have caused a rise in texting, (I seem to remember jammers don’t impact texting frequencies, just voice) but even that is not unforeseen. As annoying as the glowing screens can be, it isn’t as bad as having someone pull out their cell phone and say, “Yeah, I am in the theatre. No, no, I can talk,” in the middle of a performance.

So does anyone know of a policy that was meant to control undesirable behavior that has essentially reinforced it? Drop me an email or comment below.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Suffering Your Own Penalties”

  1. In the US, any signal jamming equipment, or any equipment that interferes with cell phone or other licensed frequencies, is illegal. I’m not sure what theatres you may be referring to in your post, but if they are in the US, they are risking federal charges.

    Now, building or installing something in the walls of the theatre that essentially “grounds” all signals from getting in or out is fine, but only if it is not an operating device. The materials themselves must block signal, much like being underground blocks most frequencies. It can’t be anything that can be turned off and on, intentionally or not.


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