Picture this – you’re having dinner with your friend at Pizza Express. You don’t mind going there as it’s Monday so you get 40% off with your NUS card. The server has been lovely, cracking jokes, smiling as if you’re their favourite customer, and always makes sure you don’t lack refreshment. Then it comes – the bill. You take out your Visa Debit and hand it to them. They hand you the machine with a smile. On the screen you read ‘Would you like to leave a tip?’. For whatever reason you select ‘Yes’. But why? You probably won’t see them again and their politeness was probably due to them just doing their job. So why do you feel obliged to tip?
This can be easily explained through the norm of reciprocity, an expectation that we will return favourable behaviour with favourable behaviour. By doing their job well the server made you feel happy, so you felt obligated to tip to make them happy also. Reciprocity is different than altruism in that the former is a social obligation where there’s an expectation of exchange of prosocial behaviour, while in the latter such expectation doesn’t exist.
Reciprocity has been well documented in research. An experiment by Regan (1971) showed that reciprocity overpowers liking. The participants believed they were in an art appreciation experiment with Joe, a confederate, who upon his return to the experiment either did or did not give the participant a drink. Regan found that when the participants liked Joe, they were more likely to buy a raffle ticket from him after the experiment. However, in the experimental condition it didn’t matter whether Joe was liked or not, reciprocity overpowered liking as even participants who didn’t like Joe felt obliged to buy his raffle tickets. In another study Kunz (1971) found that when he sent Christmas cards to strangers, they reciprocated and also sent him one. This suggests that it doesn’t matter who asks us for a favour – if they have done something nice for us, we’ll probably do something nice for them. Perhaps even if the server was mean, we’d still tip them as they have brought us food.
However, it’ll probably matter when we’re being asked to tip. Obligations extend into the future, but there’s an expiration date as to when we would expect to return the favour. Burger et al (1997) carried out an experiment where participants were asked 3 different scenarios in which they were being helped by 3 different people. Helpers then ask for a favour either 1 week, 2 months, or 1 year later. Results show that the likelihood of returning the favour decreases with time. The findings were interpreted to mean that there’s a reasonable period of time during which we’ll reciprocate the favour. Furthermore, Flynn (2002) showed that with time the significance of the favour is reduced. The receivers of the favour valued it more than giver immediately after receiving it, but after a month, the perception was reversed as shown in the graph below.
So, in the example of the server, we’d expect that if we were asked to tip directly after we eat we’d be more likely to do so than if we were asked the next day or later, depending on what we consider a reasonable amount of time. Since we’re usually asked to tip after we eat, we’re likely to comply with the request.
One way the server could induce us to comply with the request for a tip could be by offering something other than the service they provide. In addition to serving us food they could also offer a voucher for our next visit. A similar strategy has been implemented by a religious group Hare Krishna Society. In the 70s they were considered an outgroup due to their strange clothing, bells and shaved heads. Due to this they struggled to fundraise as Americans considered them as weird (Cialdini, 1987). So, they stopped fundraising and employed a donation-request procedure where they implemented reciprocation – they gave out ‘gifts’, often books or flowers, and refused to take them back. After, they asked for a donation, which they (of course) received. If the server gave us a voucher we’d be more likely to tip as we’d feel obliged to give them something too.
Reciprocity is very powerful. We feel obliged to repay small favours, such as a server bringing us food, even though it’s their job to do so. From experience, I know restaurants such as Pizza Express are very good at inducing compliance at a request for a tip. But, I suppose leaving a small tip is worth a voucher for a 2 for 1 main between January and February 2017 which I plan using after we get back from Christmas break.
Burger, J. M., Horita, M., Kinoshita, L., Roberts, K., & Vera, C. (1997). Effects on time on the norm of reciprocity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19(1), 91-100.
Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence (Vol. 3). A. Michel.
Flynn, F. J. (2003). What have you done for me lately? Temporal adjustments to favor evaluations. Organizational Behavior And Human Decision Processes, 91, 38-50.
Kunz, P., Woolcott, M. (1976). Season's greetings: From my status to yours Social Science Research. 5(3): 269–278.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.