Do You Tip Here? The Power of Compliance and Acceptance

Why do some people always leave a dollar in the tip jar - but not everyone?

Posted Jun 22, 2016

Source: Flickr

What is the psychology behind giving extra money to those who provide goods and services?  Let’s talk about compliance and acceptance.

Social psychologists describe compliance as publicly conforming without necessarily privately agreeing.  “OK. Sure.  I’d love to add a $1.00 donation to the Human Fund to my grocery purchase.”  Acceptance, another term used in social influence research, involves both acting and believing.  That is, you do something and you really buy into the purpose of your action.  For example, washing hands in the restroom because you truly believe it is the healthy and right thing to do.  There may be a level of conformity here, in addition, you perform the behavior because it is part of your private value system. 

Which category does tipping fall in?  When I leave a buck in the barista’s tip jar am I doing it because I’m conforming to some cultural expectation or because it’s central to my personal sense of duty?  How you feel about tipping often depends on the situation.  I feel good about leaving money for an excellent waiter or the tour guide who entertained us during a Yosemite excursion.  But I’m not always excited about leaving cash in my hotel room for a housekeeper I may never see or a parking lot attendant who hangs a sign outside his booth that reads, “tips appreciated.”  These last two examples just feel different than the first two. 

Perhaps this is because compliance and acceptance are not the same in the brain.  The memories associated with public compliance appear to have a different neural basis than memories for private acceptance  (Edelson et al., 2011; Zaki et al., 2011).

Kevin Bennett
Source: Kevin Bennett
Kevin Bennett
Source: Kevin Bennett

Sometimes it's unclear when and how much to tip.  The United States is a tipping culture so knowing the the rules is important.  So far, I’ve been happy with my Uber experiences, but it seems a little weird to just get out of the car without handing over cash.  CNN recently posted a customary gratuity guide to help people.

The occupations on the list include waiter, valet, food delivery, and hairdresser.  The recommendations all seem pretty typical – 20% for waiter, $2 for valet, bellhop $1 per bag – until you get to the recommendation for coffee shop tip jar.  It reads, “No tip required.  It’s completely optional.”  But aren’t all of these really optional?  I guess I am surprised by this because coffee shops, along with restaurants and barbershops, are among the places I’m most likely to leave a tip. 

For me, it is an issue of acceptance with these services.  I believe it is a good thing to do.  I can’t  claim the moral high ground across the board, however.  If I tip the men’s room attendant it is purely out of compliance and utter discomfort.  I feel bad that they have to be in there at all.  Then I think, “Why are they in there?”  Publicly I tip, but privately I question it.  This seems like an occupation that will go the way of the elevator operator and gas station attendant (this one’s still on the list). 

One summer in college I delivered pizza for about two months.  My own unscientific observations led to the conclusion, echoed by my fellow drivers, that the tipping percentage was inversely proportional to the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.  We almost always got a higher percentage tip in poor neighborhoods than in wealthy subdivisions.  I suspect that may have to do with how close we feel to the delivery driver profession.  Perhaps individuals in lower SES communities have more personal connections with jobs that rely on tips.  This, in turn, fuels the belief that it is the right thing to do and not just something one has to do.


Edelson, M., Sharot, T., Dolan, R. J., & Dudai, Y. (2011). Following the crowd: Brain     substrates of long-term memory conformity. Science, 333(6038), 108-111. doi:

Zaki, J., Schirmer, J., & Mitchell, J. P. (2011). Social influence modulates the neural computation of value. Psychological Science, 22(7), 894-900. doi: