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Behavioral Economics

3 Ways We're Being Tricked Into Tipping More

Nudges, "social proof," and more.

Key points

  • The service industry has put psychology research into practice to trick customers into tipping more.
  • To get us to tip more, the indutry relies on social proof, nudging, and watching us as we tip.
Nuted32/ Shutterstock
Source: Nuted32/ Shutterstock

If you have gone to a coffee shop, restaurant, or bar recently, you might have found yourself leaving a generous—perhaps, more than generous—tip when paying for your food and drinks.

As a consumer psychology researcher, I find that the single most common area in which psychology research is being put into practice is tipping in the service industry. Leaving a 15 percent tip used to be the industry standard, but tipping 20 percent or more has now become the norm.

While the pandemic kickstarted this trend (whuch was justifiable, as service workers faced more risk in serving customers), the trend of increased tipping is sticking around. Here are three psychology-based ways that businesses are tricking customers into tipping more.

1. Seeding the Tip Jar. This is the most prevalent yet old-school tactic for nudging customers to leave a tip with their purchase. Seeding the tip jar is when the barista or bartender places money from the cash register into the tip jar before opening up the doors for business. This tactic is powerful because it relies on the social psychology concept known as social proof. When we are asking ourselves whether we should leave a tip or not, we look for cues in the environment about what other people in the same situation are doing.

When we see an empty tip jar sitting on the counter, we use this information to conclude that nobody else is tipping and so we may decide to keep our change. But when we see a tip jar full of cash, we think that most other customers must have left a tip, so we decide that we ought to do so as well. Social norms are among the most powerful drivers of behavior, and seeding the tip jar is an incredibly effective signal that customers should tip.

Seeding the tip jar works for cash, but what about digital transactions?

2. Setting High Default Tipping Options. Most customer-service businesses have moved away from cash and toward accepting credit cards and digital transactions, sometimes exclusively. In other words, tablets and kiosks have replaced the cash register.

When paying for your food or beverage, you will insert your credit card and be prompted to leave a tip. The options to tip usually involve three default choices (15 percent; 20 percent; 25 percent). Consumer research suggests that most people choose the middle option when given three choices, and this particular set of options leads the typical customer to choose 20 percent. But I have now noticed some businesses hacking this principle by changing the options to 20 percent, 25 percent, and 30 percent. While customers still have the option to choose a custom tip, increasing the default tip amounts leads many of us to tip more. This tactic relies on a concept called "nudge," demonstrating that changing default options has a powerful influence on our decisions. We don’t want to hassle with clicking extra buttons to leave a custom tip and hold the line up while our cup of coffee cools off, so we begrudgingly accept the 25 percent tip option in the middle.

3. Social Pressure. The final trick businesses use to increase tipping involves the concept of social pressure. Often when paying for your food or beverage, the waiter/barista/bartender will turn the tablet around for you to choose a tipping option, while they stand there awkwardly and pretend not to watch you. Or they may stare you down while you make your choice to put more pressure on you.

I have noticed that I tip more when the waiter/barista/bartender is looking at me, while I tip less when they walk away from the counter. This trick relies on the concept of social desirability, meaning that we behave more desirably when others are watching what we do compared to how we behave when they are not.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t tip or tip well if you have received great service. But I have noticed businesses using these tricks to get customers to tip more than ever before. If you are feeling duped, suckered, and scammed when it comes to tipping these days, be aware that businesses are designing the system to facilitate this. Next time you feel that you’re being tricked to tip more than you’re comfortable with, ask yourself what feels like the right amount of money, and then stick to your decision despite the pressure.

Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock


Cialdini, R. B. (2008). Influence (5th ed.). Pearson.

Grimm, P. (2010). Social desirability bias. Wiley international encyclopedia of marketing.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge. Penguin.

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