Dan Ariely Gets Some Unwelcome Tips about Tipping from His Readers

Dan Ariely is one of my favorite behavioral economists, and the author of a semi-regular Wall Street Journal column featuring readers’ questions and his answers.

Today’s column evoked some strong negative reaction from readers, and I thought I’d share one of them with you.

Here is the original question, along with Dan’s response:

Hi, Dan,

At a “fast casual” restaurant without table service, the payment screen offered me a “No Tip” option or tips of 15%, 18% and 20%. I felt these were too high, since I had stood in line and was carrying my own food. I gave the minimum 15%—still a lot more than I have ever tipped in a fast-food place. I felt manipulated by the screen and wonder if this system prods people to tip more. —Robert

and here is Dan’s response:

Yes, such screens boost tips through a design principle called “active choice.” Many fast-food restaurants simply have an easily ignorable tip jar. But with the screen, neglecting to tip feels much worse, like a rejection of the staff. On the other hand, please remember that the people working at fast-food places work just as many hours as standard servers, for less money. Many may not be making a living wage. Helping them out a bit is a good thing to do.

I’ll admit that I don’t know what to do at these sort of places either; should I tip when I pick up my pizza to go? what about the woman at the Dunkin’ Donuts counter that gets me a coffee and a bagel? or how about when I get some water ice?

(Yes, I know. I only go to the best of restaurants.)

Usually I give some tip, but I’m never sure what hte right amount should be, or even if there should be a tip.

Well Dan’s answer seemed to suggest that people should tip something, but a lot of his readers did not agree; here are some of the comments:

  • A few times in my life I have had amazing service at a restaurant.  The best was at a restaurant where everything happened without me even noticing.  Asking for a tip for counter service is almost begging.  If the service is something that you suspect could be better done by a computer, what is there to tip?
  • I recently encountered the same situation at a fast food place in Texas. I saw the psychological ploy for what it was and chose “No tip”. The act of tipping is not a form of social justice. It’s simply a traditional method of incentivizing good service in a restaurant.
  • I hate that we have a tipping system in this country.    One more wonderful example of US “exceptionalism”
  • The fast food tipping problem is an easy one. Pay with cash.
  • Why limit tipping to counter people at food establishments if the justification is that the employees are not being paid enough?  Will we soon expect to see a tip option at the checkout in Kroger?  JC Pennys?  Many folks in retail work for less than “living wages”.
  • Oh, stuff it, Ariely. If people don’t feel the pressure of low wages, they won’t be incentivized to get training or education to qualify for higher-paying jobs.
  • A waitperson provides me a service: an explanation of items on the menu, advice, serving me every course of my meal, and cleaning up after each course. An order-taker takes my order and does nothing else for me. Why should I tip such a person? Should I tip bank tellers? Dry cleaners? Check-out people at supermarkets?
  • There is absolutely no reason to tip at a fast food establishment.
    The employees are already paid what they are worth; if they were worth more than the pay they receive, they’d already be working there. Enough with the “tipping” nonsense.
  • taking your order at a register and then handing you food isn’t tip worthy.
  • I am very conflicted by the tipping scenario mentioned in the first question.  I rarely do not tip at all, but I do find it hard to rationalize tipping at restaurants where I am carrying my food to the table, refilling my own drink, and cleaning up my tray/plates afterwards. What honestly ends up happening to me is that I stay away from places like this (fast casual restaurants, food trucks, etc.)
  • I don’t frequent fast-casual restaurants often but when I do, I don’t tip. In fast-casual, counter service isn’t (shouldn’t be) rewarded with a tip. What is the point? The cashier doesn’t do anything exceptional to assist the customer in this scenario.
  • I don’t tip in fast casual. I like fast casual specifically because of this.  we rarely eat in fine dining as with 20% expected tip , things get really expensive.
  • I tip at food trucks, after a meal if it was better than expected.

There were a couple of readers who agreed with Dan, but the vast majority did not agree at all.

I’m not sure I’m any better informed about the tipping issue, but I did learn that no matter how successful you are, there are going to be people who disagree with you.

I guess that’s the price you pay for being willing to share your opinion with the world.

There’s clearly a need to find the right balance between sticking to what you believe in versus a willingness to change your opinion as a result of what you learn from user feedback.

By the way, if you feel so compelled to tip after having read this blog, just Venmo me.


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