Tipping: Grateful Gratuities

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Tipping: Grateful Gratuities

There are several ways of calculating the tip after a meal. I find that the best way is to divide the bill by the height of the waiter. (Miss Piggy, Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, 1981)

Ernie: ’Is this my bill?’ Eric: ’Yes, sir.’ Ernie: ’I’m terribly sorry — it looks as if I’ve got just enough money to pay for the dinner but I’ve got nothing to tip you with.’ Eric: ’Let me add that bill up again, sir.’ (Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, The Morecambe and Wise Joke Book, 1979)

The term TIP supposedly stands for ’To Insure Promptness’ which was derived from the eighteenth-century English tradition of giving coins with written words to publicans. It is now estimated that over $10 billion is given as tips in America to waiters/waitresses, porters, hairdressers, taxi drivers, chambermaids and a host of other ’professionals’.

What is the meaning and function of tipping? Why does it exist? Why tip taxi drivers and hairdressers but not tailors? What are the determinants of tipping? How does tipping affect the service-givers (e.g. waiters), the recipients (i.e. customers) and the relationship between the two parties?

Psychologists suggest that tipping is a form of ego massage calculated to enhance the self-image of the tipper. Also, by giving a tip — above and beyond the agreed set price — the tipper can demonstrate he/she is not fully trapped by market forces and can be capable of voluntary, discretionary action. The tip can sometimes be seen as a result of the customer’s insecurity or anxiety. A maid or hairdresser deserves a tip through having access to the customer’s private territory or articles that may just pose a threat to the customer’s public face. The tip can buy their server’s silence because it buys loyalty or indebtedness. Psychologists stress that tipping is intrinsically motivated rather than performed for the sake of the external material or social rewards.

Lynn and Grassman (1990) spelt out, in detail, the three ’rational’ explanations for tipping:

• Buying social approval with tips: following the social norms (i.e. 15 per cent tipping) is a desire for social approval or else a fear of disapproval.

• Buying an equitable relationship with tips: tips buy peace-of-mind by helping maintain a more equitable relationship with servers.

• Buying future service with tips: tips ensure better service in the future because the tit-for-tat works but only with regular customers.

In their study they found support for the first two, but not the third explanation.

Despite the number of people fairly dependent on tips for their income, little research has been done until comparatively recently into their curious and wide-spreading habit. Early research summarized studies done in the 1970s, finding:

1 Most tips are around the 15 per cent American norm.

2 The percentage of the tip to total cost is an inverse power function of the number of people at the table.

3 Physically attractive and/or attractively dressed waitresses receive greater tips than less attractive waitresses.

4 Tips are bigger when paid by credit cards, relative to cash payers.

5 Tips are not related to whether alcohol is consumed.

6 Tips increase with the number of non-task oriented ’visits’ by waiter and waitress, but are unrelated to the customers’ ratings of service.

7 Often, but not always, males tip more than females.

Some studies have focused on the server’s behaviour.

1 Whether the server touched the diner.

2 Whether the server initially squatted in their interaction with the diner as opposed to stood.

3 The size of their initial smile.

4 Whether the server introduced him/herself with their first name.

5 The number of incidental (non-task oriented) visits to the table.

Other studies showed the following behaviours influenced tipping:

• Waitresses wore make-up and a flower in their hair, and drew smiley faces on receipts.

• Waiters drew the sun on receipts.

• Wrote handwritten messages on the receipts, like ’thank you’ or a weather forecast.

• Staff used large, open-mouthed smiles.

• Staff gave customers jokes, puzzles and facts; sweets too, if costs permit.

• Staff addressed customers by name, and introduced themselves.

• Staff mimicked customers’ body language and verbal behaviour, and touched them appropriately during interactions.

In all his many studies on tipping, Lynn is eager to replace homo economicus with homo psychologicus. Most of his many recent studies suggest that tipping for all sorts of service in many different countries is primarily driven by three things: the desire to reward good-quality service, to help the service providers and to personally gain social approval and status. More recently he has noted two other factors: gaining good quality service in the future as well as conforming to internalized tipping norms (or doing what is right).

These studies have looked at all sorts of factors that might have a small influence on the tipping behaviour of individuals. These include: the sex and race of the server; the sex, race, age, education, income, worship frequency and alcohol consumption of the customer. Inevitably research finds that the bigger the bill, the bigger the tip.

Nearly all the papers argue that the economist’s view that tipping is irrational needs to be replaced with the insights of behaviour economics to understand when, why and how much people tip.


Furnham, A. (2015). The New Psychology of Money. London: Routledge.

Lynn, M., & Grassman, A. (1990). Restaurant tipping: An examination of three ’rational’ explanations. Journal of Economic Psychology, 11, 169—81.

Lynn, M. (2015). Service gratuities and tipping: A motivational framework. Journal of Economic Psychology, 46, 74—88.