Here’s a Tip – Beware of Psychological Manipulation

We are all familiar with the equally awkward and anxiety-inducing end to a night out at a restaurant – how much should we tip? 15%? 20%? 25%? Somewhere in-between? Figuring out how much someone’s service was worth to you on a particular night is no fun. Paying money on top of the hefty price for the food is even less fun. And yet, as restaurant servers and bartenders often are paid minimum wage or less for their base salary, tipping has become socially accepted as the best way to make a decent wage.

This tipping culture has become the norm throughout the food service industry, and it is now starting to work its way into other parts of our daily lives. Uber, for example, decided to change its tipping policy in July 2017 when it added an option for riders to tip their drivers after their ride, a change of pace from its original concept of no tip option at all. This has prompted a slew of questions from riders, such as “How much should I tip?”, “Do drivers depend on my tips?”, and “Why should I tip in the first place?”. Each of these questions has a wide spectrum of possible answers. Ultimately, the answer comes down to, or at least should come down to, what the consumer feels is right. Experiences with Uber can vary, and it should be up to the consumer to decide how much they value their experience and whether they feel the need to give a bonus to their driver.

You can also look to new mobile apps like Square and ShopKeep that have made it easy for small businesses to generate tip money by putting pressure on their patrons. These apps are set up so that once a credit card payment has been enacted, in order to complete the payment, the consumer has to proceed through a menu that offers the option to leave a tip. It is often presented in a clean format, with a few buttons that may say “No tip”, “15%”, “20%”, “25%”, or “Custom Tip Amount.”

The fact that this step in the payment process has been created is problematic for two reasons. First, it adds a bit of time and mental processing, however slight, to a process that should be as quick and brainless as possible. Tipping should be motivated from a place of desire within the consumer to express their gratitude in the form of a monetary bonus, rather than some sort of expected reciprocation. This leads right into the second issue, which is the exploitation of social default. In psychology, “the default effect” explains that making an option the default increases the likelihood it is selected. Whereas no tipping is usually the default, Square and ShopKeep make the default ambiguous, leading to a higher likelihood that an option other than “no tip” gets selected. A social default is “the default effect” in the presence of other people. To be clear, a social default is when a person observes someone else’s choice in order to inform their own choice, or otherwise, an “influence to conform to the positive expectations of another.Clearly, when a customer is faced with the option to tip their server they will feel compelled to give some amount of money if only to conform to the expectation that they will reward the worker for their service. Thus, we can infer that people are subconsciously tipping more – in terms of frequency and dollar amount – than they otherwise would have if this option to tip wasn’t presented in such an easy, readily available format.

Obviously, the decision to tip or not is an extremely nuanced one, with a host of variables and situations to examine. One must take into consideration the fact that people in service industries often don’t make much for a base salary, even if it is more than minimum wage. Tipping also doesn’t have to be a large quantity of money, and it can be a nice sign of respect and gratitude for the service that was provided. That’s not to mention the fact that tipping is a cultural phenomenon; it is prominent in America but less culturally ingrained in the rest of the world. Regardless, tipping is something one must consider each time they are faced with this choice.

Tipping in restaurants is one thing; it has become a deeply ingrained part of our society and at this point it would be difficult, both psychologically and logistically, to rework the framework of payment in the restaurant industry. However, it is time to put our foot down over the expansion of tipping culture from the producer side into daily life. Tipping should be an unprompted, personal act of gratitude. If workers aren’t making enough, pay them more as a base salary. We shouldn’t rely on the consumer to supplement a worker’s salary out of the goodness of their heart or – as the case is increasingly becoming – out of psychological manipulation and societal pressure.

Sources: New York Times, Journal of Consumer Research