Signing Up for Group Training Sessions: A Collective Action Problem

INTRODUCTION

The phrase “collective action problem” is a term of art that characterizes a socio-economic scenario wherein each agent of a group enterprise, acting individually towards his or her own self-interest(s), behaves in a way that prevents the group as a whole from achieving some socially optimal outcome.  The “problem” alluded to by the term is the sub-optimal result caused by the agents of the group acting alone, instead of through some type of coordinated (or “collective”) effort.

Although employed primarily in the economic (and political) spheres, the term can apply to a number of diverse settings, including the fitness world.  Most relevant to the following discussion, the collective action problem can arise in group training settings wherein participants have access to class rosters that indicate how many and/or which participants have signed up for a scheduled class.  Specifically, the perception of an empty class—one in which, prior to the time of the scheduled class, no one has signed up for on the roster that all potential participants have access to—creates an illusion for any potential participants that no one else is interested in attending that scheduled class.  This, in turn, deters those potential participants who place the most value on attending small- or moderate-sized group classes from signing up because it becomes increasingly more likely as the class time approaches that, were they to sign up, they would end up being alone.  The kicker: it is more likely than not that there are a number of other potential participants looking at the situation in a very similar (if not identical) manner!

Under the circumstances, one of two results is likely to play out: a) potential participants sign up for a more crowded class offered at a different time; or b) potential participants do not sign up for any class, whatsoever.  Both of these solutions are of lesser value to potential participants than attending a smaller or more moderately sized group class, a result that could have matriculated had they collectively decided to sign up for the otherwise empty class.

In this article, we will discuss what causes the collective action problem to arise in group training settings, we will review—less abstractly—how the collective action problem is likely to play out in the real fitness world, and we will analyze some pragmatic solutions to the problem, as well as some more philosophical considerations.

THE COLLECTIVE ACTION PROBLEM DEFINED

Before we begin our analysis of the collective action problem, as it arises in the fitness world, it is important to define the term itself and identify what makes the “problem” paradoxical.  Britannica Online defines the term “collective action problem” as: “[a] problem, inherent to collective action [i.e. people working together and/or contemporaneously], that is posed by disincentives that tend to discourage joint action by individuals in the pursuit of a common goal.”  The problem, characterized in more simple language, is that people acting in favor of their own individual self-interests, under certain circumstances, behave in ways that prevent the most beneficial group outcome from being realized.  The “circumstances” are the real or perceived barriers people face to accessing collective information, and the disincentives are the misinterpreted situational implications created by those information obstacles.  Unfortunately, in light of these hurdles, people often resort to the course of action most faithful to their perceived individual interests because, isolated, they cannot recognize the greater value of the path that favors the group interest(s).

Typically, the players on the board in these situations are extremely risk averse, and without sufficient incentive, they are unlikely to take certain actions based on faith alone.  Those players may want the exact same result as each other, and they may even value it above all other results, but because achieving that result requires a leap of faith—trusting that the other individuals will act the same way, without guarantee—individuals will save face by forgoing the group-friendly result for the one that suits their immediate partisan interests.

ROOTS OF THE COLLECTIVE ACTION PROBLEM IN THE FITNESS WORLD

The collective action problem is not unique to the economic and political spheres.  Indeed, it appears in many areas of daily life, including the fitness world.  Within the bustling arena of the twenty-first century fitness industry, the collective action problem arises frequently in group training settings, particularly where participants have functional and visual access (private or public) to group attendance information—i.e. class rosters—like they do at many CrossFit gyms.

Attendance software is essential for the successful and efficient operation of any modern fitness enterprise.  There are several platforms to choose from, and although no two are identical, many of the available products include similar features.  Among those features, the most common is some sort of online signup or scheduling mechanism.  Such a feature not only lists session times and identifies the coaches or instructors leading those classes, but it also indicates the specific availability of roster slots.  In other words, those viewing the page online can observe whether or not anyone else has signed up for class.  Some pages can even be administered to reveal the identities of others who have signed up online.

Aside from the obvious functional utility such features provide gym owners and coaches—who must plan out the logistical aspects of training sessions based on the numbers and identities of anticipated participants—those same features serve an important (albeit, less obvious) purpose for clients.  Access to online rosters shows clients that, no matter whom they are or what their unique individual goals are, they are not alone in their endeavor for self-improvement through fitness.

Of course, not everyone prefers to train in a group or class setting, or under the supervision of a qualified coach.  Some people simply dislike being around others when they are exercising.  I, myself, prefer training in solitude some of the time.  Nonetheless, for many individuals who have never really engaged in fitness oriented activity before, or for those who have found themselves on an extended hiatus from the realm of physical exercise, a major road block to getting into the gym is personal accountability.  This is not a character flaw; rather, it is one of many personal obstacles that individuals are likely to face throughout their fitness journeys.

In the simplest sense, many individuals need a little extra push, an external stimulus that can ignite that small fire within, which compels them to act.  The group training atmosphere offered by most CrossFit gyms (and many other modern fitness institutions), along with the communal bonds they strive to promote, help individuals overcome personal accountability obstacles.  In fact, it is the online signup and attendance software that clients have access to which functions as the match and provides the foundation for a new, social accountability mechanism.  Because of the software, participants are able to access attendance information and identify which classes their friends and supporters have signed up for, and pending scheduling conflicts, are able to sign up for the same sessions.

At first glance, this all sounds like a good thing.  The setup is flawless, and everyone wins, right?  In practice, however, participant access to session attendance information may actually backfire by deterring those participants who rely on the presence of other participants in training settings from signing up and getting to class.  Why?  How?  Enter: the collective action problem.

AN EXAMPLE OF HOW THE COLLECTIVE ACTION PROBLEM PRESENTS IN THE GROUP TRAINING CONTEXT

The following scenario, as laid out, is by no means exhaustive or without variation.  Any number of identifiable and/or unforeseen variables may affect circumstances that influence the trajectory of events as they unfold.  I do believe, however, that this example is generally representative of a dilemma many participants face periodically throughout their respective fitness journeys.

Member A and Member B (hereinafter, simply “A” and “B”) are client participants at Gym X.  A and B both derive the greatest utility (value) from group fitness experiences, but it is not essential to their happiness as individuals that they attend the same classes together.  They simply share similar preferences when it comes to participating in fitness.  Whatever their reasons—maybe they dislike clutter or feel more confident when a greater apportionment of the coach’s focus can be devoted to them individually—A and B generally dislike large classes.  That said, they both value any type of group training above not working out at all.  Because neither is familiar with the one-on-one dynamic of personal training, let us assume (for now) that A and B are each quite averse to being the sole participant in what otherwise would be a group class.  They like getting a lot of attention from their coach, but neither is comfortable with being the exclusive object of the coach’s focus.  Even for an hour.

To accommodate the technological and planning demands of twenty-first century fitness consumers, Gym X has invested in online scheduling software that allows members to sign up for classes ahead of time.  In fact, A and B are required to use this software as a condition to participating in class.  Classes can be signed up for up to seven calendar days in advance.  The capacity for each class tops out at ten available roster slots, with one qualified coach assigned to lead each group class.  On the Gym X webpage, members and staff have access to the scheduling docket and roster information, which appears to all as a fraction: “N/10” (indicating, specifically, that N number of the available ten slots have been filled).

Now that some important parameters have been set, we can begin exploring when and how the collective action problem develops within this scenario.  The collective action problem is not a phenomenon that plays out identically one hundred percent of the time, but given certain circumstances and other generally acknowledged aspects of rational human cognition, the likelihood of it arising in a group dynamic can increase significantly.  The theory is based on the assumption that, where their preferences are aligned, rational humans beings confronted with various incentives/disincentives will behave consistently.

Within the framework discussed above, the obstacles that threaten productive collective action present as soon as the scheduling docket updates to include a new class, which necessarily appears—if only for a fraction of a minute—as “0/10”.  This indicates, of course, that no one has signed up for class.  We may assume that A and B have access to this information as soon as it appears, and that each member checks the Gym X website regularly on his or her own initiative.  Neither A nor B wants to be stuck alone in a class, so neither is willing to sign up while the roster indicates “0/10”.  As we will discover below, the incentive for A and B to independently avoid signing up for class only becomes stronger as the date and hour of the scheduled class approach.

We can be a little more precise.  A looks on the scheduling docket on Wednesday evening, to access the roster information concerning the 5:30pm class posted for the following Tuesday evening.  As it appears to A, and any other member looking at the scheduling docket at the same time, no one has signed up for the 5:30pm class, although—and this is important—several names have shown up on the rosters for both the 4:30 and 6:30pm classes on that same Tuesday evening.  At this time, A can physically make it to any of those three classes (4:30, 5:30, or 6:30pm), but A prefers the 5:30pm class, especially because the 4:30 and 6:30pm classes are usually at capacity.  Nonetheless, A will not sign up for the 5:30pm class, because A really doesn’t want to be the only participant.  Unbeknownst to A, B is also at home looking at the same scheduling docket at the same time.  And behold, B feels exactly the same way.  So B similarly refuses to be the first to sign up for the 5:30pm class.

Let us fast forward to Sunday afternoon.  We find both A and B within the solitude of their respective houses looking again at the docket information for Tuesday’s 5:30pm class.  Despite no change in the 5:30pm class’s projected size (still showing “0/10”), more members have signed up for the 4:30 and 6:30pm classes.  If we look at it a different way, there are now fewer available roster slots in the 4:30 and 6:30pm classes than there were the other day.  This is not unusual for Gym X, which experiences its greatest influx of members during the 4:30 and 6:30pm sessions.

So far, things aren’t looking good for A and B.  Were we to peek inside their minds, we may even see some anxiety developing, because it continues to look less likely that they will get to enjoy the small group session they both seek on the coming Tuesday evening.  Class is now only two sleeps away, and no one has signed up for 5:30pm, indicating to A and B independently that each is likely to be the only one in class, should either take the initiative to sign up.  Moreover, the other evening classes are filling up (each is approaching the ten-participant ceiling).  Although the alternative is more appealing than missing a workout, A and B do not sign up for the 4:30 or 6:30pm classes because they prefer avoiding big training groups.  The perception of both A and B is that they only have three options, each more undesirable than the last: 1) get stuck in a large group class; 2) miss the workout altogether; or 3) end up as the sole participant in class.  The third option, however, is just an illusion!  And that is the great irony of the situation: A and B could each sign up for the 5:30pm class and find themselves in the ideal situation for both—a small group class, at the perfect time.  Nevertheless, because neither wants to put himself or herself out there, and because neither has definitive access to the thoughts of the other (i.e. “access to information”), neither A nor B sees that outcome as possible.  So they both disregard it.

Finally, Tuesday afternoon has arrived, and A and B must each make his or her decision.  The roster information for 5:30pm indicates, still, that “0/10” attendees have signed up.  Accordingly, A slips into the last available 6:30pm slot.  There is no longer room in this class for any additional participants.  Meanwhile, B—who cannot commute quickly enough now to make the 4:30pm class, and who can only hope to be waitlisted for the at-capacity 6:30pm class—is in a tight spot: either be the only 5:30pm participant, or miss the workout today.  Because B does not want to frustrate the would-be 5:30pm coach—who undoubtedly anticipates having the hour off (or so B reasons)—B decides to skip working out at all Tuesday.

Frankly, this last bit of the scenario could have played out many different ways, some of them more lofty than others, but I would argue that the least likely scenario to actually play out would be the one where both A and B end up happily in a small 5:30pm group class that Tuesday evening (the optimal outcome).  And that is the practical essence of the collective action problem.  Even though the ideal situation for both A and B was an available option almost the entire time—up until late Tuesday afternoon—neither A nor B was able to capitalize on the opportunity.  A ended up as the tenth participant in a packed class, while B missed out on the chance to work out (a situation of his or her own making).

Unfortunately, the implications of such a scenario, for clients and gym owners alike, are not negligible.  Even though the mentalities of A and B are not representative of all gym-goers,  the consumer base for the modern fitness industry does include a significant number of people that want to make strides in self-improvement and personal wellbeing, but struggle with accountability.  Many people play games in their minds like A and B above, and have genuine concerns about and aversions to participating in fitness opportunities.  And for such individuals, the course of the above example (or some variation thereof) can quickly become a gateway towards a sedentary or less healthy lifestyle (or a relapse), especially when that situation occurs regularly and with more clients than just A and B!  Maybe B confronts the above dilemma each day of the week, and goes from making it to the gym three days/week, on average, to one.  It is not a big leap to consider that B may simply stop going to the gym altogether because he or she becomes complacent with not going a majority of the time, and he or she no longer sees the point in even looking at the online schedule.

The culprits in the above situation, and by extension, the impetus for the collective action problem presenting, are the barriers to accessing collective information and the disincentives they create.  More irony: the online scheduling software is the epitome of making information broadly accessible, yet it fuels the fire, so to speak, in nurturing the collective action problem because consumers distort the information it provides, as we saw with A and B.

SOLVING THE COLLECTIVE ACTION PROBLEM IN THE MODERN FITNESS WORLD

Now that we have reviewed the situational circumstances that lead to the collective action problem, as well as how the collective action problem might present in the modern fitness world, we can discuss some potential solutions.  In order to overcome the collective action problem, it is necessary to do one of two things (or both): 1) eliminate or greatly reduce the barriers to accessing collective information; and/or, 2) change the incentives that individuals face.  A list of pragmatic solutions addresses the former, while a presentation of some philosophical considerations makes the latter possible.

A) Pragmatic Solutions

A click of the mouse or tap on the phone screen is the only physical obstacle separating participants from realizing their preferred fitness experiences, but for some individuals, that step requires a leap of faith—confidence that others will also sign up without having definitive confirmation that they will.  Therefore, any pragmatic solution to the collective action problem must involve bridging that faith gap.  The only way to do that is to eliminate (or greatly reduce) doubt from the equation.

The good news is that at least two mechanisms for facilitating this purpose already exist: online and telephonic communication networks (i.e. social media and phones).  In socio-economic terms, these collaborative infrastructures function as mechanisms for “collective mobilization”.  They take the guess work out of individuals’ minds by providing a forum in which participants can communicate.  The social media platform could not be more suited for such a purpose.  Gym owners and administrators need only create a private group for members, who can then post intentions or commitments to attend a certain class.  Those other members who are also looking to sign up, but are similarly apprehensive about being the first (and potentially only) ones to do so, can then express their own intentions or commitments, and all parties can agree to sign up together.  This is about as close to a guarantee as one can expect in the busy society we live in today.  Actually, many gym-administered websites have blogs and message boards.  These are also great places to communicate the same information.

A more direct solution comes in the form of a short phone call or txt message.  Especially in the CrossFit world, community is a priority.  Exchanging contact information with other members (phone numbers and/or email addresses) is easy to do in this environment, and doing so makes it possible to discuss scheduling and the potential for coordinating mutual attendance at future classes.

Taking this one step further, it is possible to envision a car-pooling regimen that is born from one of these communication networks.  Car-pooling eliminates doubt and adds an additional accountability check.  In fact, showing up to the gym together not only makes working out together convenient, it creates a breeding ground for mutual support and encouragement.

I would like to acknowledge one more pragmatic solution, before moving on, and this one came directly from a client with whom I was discussing the collective action problem.  (As it happened, this client was the only member to sign up for an evening class on that day, and because she was still willing to come in, we were able to spend some extra time focusing on the more technical aspects of a complicated weightlifting movement.)  The proposed solution was a “phantom member”—an invented gym member whose name a coach could throw on the signup roster to give the illusion to any potential participants that someone had already signed up for an otherwise empty class.  Although this well-intended trickery would undoubtedly prove effective at the beginning, members would eventually catch on to the fact that Phantoms Phil and Felicia never actually show up, and word would thereafter spread to those unfamiliar with the current membership base.  The ploy would also be difficult to administer and would require nearly constant attention, lest it have the opposite effect by excluding potential participants, should the class roster quickly fill up while the phantom’s name unwittingly remained on the schedule.

Nonetheless, by modifying the proposal slightly, we arrive at a more functional solution.  Instead of creating a phantom member, available coaches—who intend to complete their own daily training within the framework of a class offered by the gym—can take the initiative to sign up for vacant classes that also meet the demands of their own schedules.  Again, coaches under these circumstances must remain attentive to the overall sizes of the respective classes and be prepared to remove their own names, so as to avoid blocking other paying members from participating, but being in class with members facilitates a mutually beneficial training environment and adds an element of excitement to the session.  It is not every day that members get to see their instructors sample a dose of their own programming medicine, and it also keeps coaches in check by requiring them to observe the same technical discipline during class workouts that they preach to their clients.

B) Philosophical Considerations

In addition to the pragmatic solutions listed above, the philosophical considerations that follow can similarly disrupt the operation of the collective action problem in the modern fitness world by changing the way participants perceive and value their available options.  These opinions are not surface-level, mechanical solutions; rather, they are more thoughtful—albeit, frank—suggestions designed to arm individuals against some of the circumstantial disincentives they may face in group training settings.

I will premise these opinions with this: coaching, instructing, teaching—whatever you want to call it—is the occupation we “coaches” have voluntarily chosen.  Coaching is so much more than the passive monitoring of people while they sweat and play around with fancy or ingenious fitness equipment.  Nor is it some sadistic enterprise to exploit the suffering of those participating in fitness.  We are there to help you.  We are there to play a proactive role in bringing you closer to your fitness goals.  Of all the other jobs available, this is the one we have chosen.

With that in mind, never, ever use your coaches or what you perceive to be their preferences and priorities to justify not signing up for class.  And by that, I mean playing the game in your head that goes something like: “I bet Coach Dude/Dudette wants to get out of here early tonight, so I’ll just skip going to the late evening class, especially since no one else has signed up.”  Although I (we) appreciate the sentiment, it is a misguided illusion.  Fitness for the average Joe and Jane is a service industry.  We, as fitness coaches and gym owners, have fixed hours of operations that reflect our preferences and our preparedness to work, just like the local barber or hair stylist.  Do not let the devil on your shoulder convince you not to sign up for a training session because of some misplaced altruism.  When it comes down to it, your mind is simply creating a moral justification for you voluntarily choosing to be lazy.  Instead, if you really want to be nice to someone else, be nice to your wife, husband, children, parents, friends, and/or employers by getting your butt to the gym, so that those other humans (or pets!) in your life can enjoy your company and example for many more happy and healthy years to come.

Along these same lines, you have likely invested what is not a nominal sum of money in your gym membership.  Even if this fee is not substantial, your membership is not free (either in pecuniary terms or in kind).  That money goes indirectly to the upkeep of the gym, of course, but it also compensates your coaches for their time.  They want to be there so that they can earn their livings, just as you do with your own occupations, whatever they may be.  Again, that is exactly what your coaches signed up for when they were hired.  So do not waste your own money by not going to the gym, then, justify it because you think the coaches do not want to be there.  Let us do our jobs.  Indeed, make us earn our money.

Switching gears slightly, for those who find one-on-one coaching intimidating (without ever having tried it): signing up for an otherwise empty class is an opportunity to challenge that assumption and develop some self-confidence.  If there are reservations or concerns, be assertive by expressing them openly to the coach.  Coaches are there to accommodate their clients, but they cannot adapt their policies towards your needs without your input.  So, instead of holding back, take full advantage of what might essentially be a highly discounted personal training session.  Having the coach’s expertise and attention devoted exclusively to you for the entirety of a session may make some feel judged and, therefore, intimidated.  Please, discard any presumption that your coach is there to judge you; your coach is there to help and encourage you.  Fitness can be a team effort, and your coach—if he or she is worthy of the position—is in your corner with you.  Working one-on-one with your coach allows him or her to better understand your unique goals and needs as a client, which is valuable data that can then be applied more effectively in future training sessions.

Returning to the coach’s perspective, your coach prefers smaller groups, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of larger ones.  Your coach’s attention is necessarily more limited when there are more participants in class, and it is much more challenging to engage on an individual level and provide more nuanced input that may be essential to progress.  By signing up for an empty class, you take advantage of an opportunity to make real progress, not just get a simple workout in.

Finally, it is doubtful that your coach has achieved perfection, either as a coach or as an athlete, though he or she may aspire to.  Your coach can learn a lot from you, especially when it comes to intangibles, like commitment and perseverance.  Working one-on-one should enhance both of your experiences, in more ways than one.

If you are one of those individuals who prefers not to sign up first for an empty class, you are really just engaged in a staring contest—one you do not want to win!  As hard as it is to believe, there are not only some, but many other individuals out there in exactly the same position as you are.  If none of you step up to break that stalemate, however, you will be waiting for a very long time, and life and fitness will continue to pass you by.  In the worst case, you end up learning something in a one-on-one session with the person whose duty it is to help you progress towards your goals.  On the other hand, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised when you show up and meet a friendly new face, or the experienced face of a wily veteran.  Perhaps your singing up for class was the inspirational trigger that motivated someone else to get to the gym.  At the end of the day, if you are at the gym or participating in fitness for any number of valid reasons, your personal health should out-value most other considerations.  So conquer your fear and sign up.

CONCLUSION

We will wrap this up with a message of hope.  Fitness is about empowerment.  That is its most basic, fundamental objective: licensing you to take ownership and responsibility over those aspects of your personal health—and your happiness—that you can control.  A major obstacle to personal improvement is departing from an established norm.  Disrupting a complacent routine in a way that opens doors to more positive experiences is the critical first step, after identifying that a change is needed.  Defeating the collective action problem in the modern fitness world is no different.  Go out and take control of your health by signing up for class.
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