Why We Don't Like Automatic Tips After Meals

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Doing math is not a top priority for most people after a great meal, but when we go out to eat, we do it anyway, for the most part. Tipping is a key part of supporting the restaurant industry and the workers who make it run. A process that removes friction from doing so should be welcome. Instead, it turns out that diners really resent it.

Researchers at Washington State University have just published a study looking into automatic gratuities and how we feel about them. The results are pretty counterintuitive at first: For instance, diners who have the best experience at a restaurant are the most displeased with automatic tipping on a bill. "People think nonvoluntary tipping systems are unpopular because customers can't punish servers for poor quality service," said coauthor Jeff Joireman. But the real problem, according to the research, is that customers can't reward really good wait staff.

"Being able to reward the server makes customers feel good," said lead author Ismail Karabas, but when they can't control how they do so, "their ability to show their gratitude has been blocked." This even makes diners less likely to return, even if they had a great experience otherwise.

Technology has made tipping awkward for a while now, not least thanks to generation gaps in how much diners tend to give. We have every reason to be suspicious of how much of that tip actually goes toward a server or delivery guy. That said, so long as we have the option of expressing our feedback with cash, we're more or less happy to make our feelings known.