The Science of Tipping – The New Yorker
Have you ever stopped to wonder why you are such a bad tipper? Chances are that a lot of other people sure have. But you might find it reassuring to know that the science behind why, when, and how much we tip continues to baffle behavioral scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and other people with fancy degrees who clearly have never had to wait tables.
Tipping is an extremely complex human ritual—a display of power dynamics that makes the interaction between server and servee, hairdresser and hairdressee, or hooker and hookee that much more awkward when it comes time to pay, especially when you can’t find your underpants.
Often, extremely wealthy people make a big show of tipping. “Look how rich and powerful I am!” they seem to be saying, as they flamboyantly hand wads of money to the maître d’ for a favorable table, or to their congressman for a favorable estate-tax loophole.
Some economists think that we should abolish tips altogether, claiming that the system is inherently unfair. After all, we tip valets for parking our cars, hotel maids for stealing our jewelry, and baristas for doing absolutely nothing, and yet it would probably never occur to you to tip the mechanic for your new brakes, the plastic surgeon for your magnificent face-lift, or the veterinarian for your dog’s magnificent face-lift.
Tipping dates all the way back to the eighteenth century, when patrons would give a few coins to their waiter/struggling scrimshaw artist “to insure promptness.” It’s worth noting that the concept of “promptness” back then was quite different from what it is now. In 1760, if your server took more than twenty minutes to bring your food, you were within your legal rights to “wallop him smartly on his person with a blackjack or billy club.” Whereas today you really need to be waiting for at least a goddam hour before you can administer a wallop in good conscience.
Interestingly, research has shown that the amount we tip is almost never determined by the quality of service but, rather, by our over-all moods. In a university experiment, scientists discovered that rats that were handed divorce papers just before a meal tipped considerably less than rats that were told they’d just won a trip to Disneyland. (In both groups, the soup arrived lukewarm, and the waiter was incredibly rude.)
Perhaps the biggest argument against tipping is the blatant gender biases that servers face every day. It is a well-known fact that attractive female servers receive bigger tips when they gently pat the shoulders, arms, or buttocks of their male customers. However, attractive male servers who do literally the exact same thing often find that they have received no tip at all after being revived with smelling salts.
The academic world may never truly solve the mysteries of tipping. But the bottom line is that a lot of the people you look down on rely on tips to live. So the next time you’re buying an overpriced matcha drink at your local café and see the tip jar staring up at you, what will you do? Throw all your change into it? Simply walk out?
If you’re like most people, you’ll just wait until the barista looks the other way before dropping in two or three pennies. Because, if there’s one thing scientists do know, it’s that the human ear can’t differentiate coin denominations by the little sounds they make.