Tipping is deeply ingrained in the U.S. economy as a means for consumers to incentivize and reward good service. But does it really work as intended?

Maybe not as much as many people think, say experts.

“When I first started studying the tipping-service relationship, I found a relatively weak relationship between customers’ ratings of service and the tips they left,” says Mike Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University.

“A big chunk of servers recognize that, and for them it’s not going to provide much of an incentive,” Lynn told me.

Tipping increased during the early days of the pandemic as consumers sought to reward the hard work – and risks – of restaurant servers and other service providers. Now gratuities are waning a bit amid rising inflation.

Maquis Scott is a server at a taco restaurant in Larchmont Village. It’s how he pays the bills while pursuing his sideline as a photographer. He figures at least a third of the roughly $1,400 he pulls down monthly comes from tips.

Scott says tips motivate him to do a better job.

“You kind of have to give maximum effort and customer service in order to receive that reward,” he says.

His boss agrees. “Once you get a tip, it’s like, if it’s working, I’m going to keep doing it and I’m just going to make it even better,” says Mily Nava, a Tu Madre manager.

Or not.

Researchers have found that 85% of Americans admit they’re just following the social norm when they leave a tip. That is, they’ll tip regardless of service quality – because everyone else does.

Sixty percent of Americans say they tip to avoid personal feelings of guilt.

“Ultimately, social approval’s the main reason we tip,” says Lynn.

If that’s the case, I asked Scott at Tu Madre, why does he think tipping makes sense from an economic perspective.

He thought about it a moment.

“You got me,” he concluded.

In Part 2: If tipping doesn’t work as intended, what are the alternatives?