Can't finish that 500-page novel? Take your time. Can't finish that 500-page novel? Take your time. Can't finish that 500-page novel? Take your time. (Photo: Pixabay)

Science confirms: Late fees for library books don't work

You'd think that charging people for being late would be an effective deterrent, but you'd be wrong.

The city of Sydney, Australia – like many locales around the world – has recently decided to say goodbye to late fees for overdue library books. Why would they do this? Because they discovered something surprising – late fees don't actually work. Indeed, their pilot program has shown that without the threat of a fine, three times as many books were returned to their libraries.

How is that even possible?

It turns out that the folks in Sydney got the idea from research that was conducted nearly 20 years ago at a daycare in Israel.

Patrons at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.Patrons at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: TK Kurikawa/Shutterstock)

Social scientist Uri Gneezy, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University who now teaches at the University of California San Diego, was studying the economics of everyday life. Like fellow Israeli Dan Ariely, Gneezy researches how incentives motivate decisions. In particular, he wanted to know if imposing a monetary fine would discourage bad behavior.

He conducted a study with 10 daycare centers in the seaside Israeli town of Haifa. The schools all had a policy of a 4 p.m. pickup time, yet many parents would inevitably show up late. That forced a kind-hearted teacher to stay behind to wait for the late parents. So Gneezy and his colleague decided to introduce a late fee at six of the daycares to see if that would encourage late parents to now come on time.

The New York Times bestselling book "Freakonomics" devoted a chapter to the Israeli daycare experiment. "After the fine was enacted, the number of late pickups promptly went ... up," the authors wrote. "Before long there were twenty late pickups per week, more than double the original average. The incentive had plainly backfired."

In the video below, the "Freakonomics" authors discuss these surprising findings:

Gneezy himself wrote about the experiment in his book "The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life," which was published in 2013. "In daycares where the fine was introduced, parents immediately started showing up late, with tardiness levels eventually leveling out at about twice the pre-fine level. That is, introducing a fine caused twice as many parents to show up late. What about the remaining four day care centers that remained fine-free? Tardiness didn’t change at all."

Few would have predicted what Gneezy found: introducing a financial penalty for showing up late actually caused parents to do just that. Parents stopped showing up on time entirely. It was no longer embarrassing or shameful to walk in late, tail between your legs, for the end-of-the-day pickup. It was now a socially acceptable activity with a reasonable price tag.

Young students work with tabletsKids at a daycare center in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

The same notion applies to overdue library books. If there's a fine, people think that keeping a book late is something that's OK. After all, an entire system of fines has been created around this activity. The mere fact that the fines exist normalizes the behavior. But Sydney and other cities asked: what if there were no more fines? What if it was no longer "acceptable" to keep a book past its due date?

“People weren’t embarrassed or afraid to come in and miraculously they found that book that was down the back of the couch," said Suzanne Buljan, who works for the library system in Sydney.

If only Seinfeld had known about this research, he could've avoided this tête-à-tête with a library official aptly named Mr. Bookman. As you'll recall, Bookman paid Seinfeld a visit to collect late fees on a book Jerry had checked out back in 1971. Watch what happened in the classic clip below:

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Science confirms: Late fees for library books don't work
New library research out of Australia is based on a study focusing on parents who pick up their kids late from daycare.