Should Rationalists Tip at Restaurants?

post by Mass_Driver · 2011-07-12T05:28:32.675Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 29 comments

Related to: Robin Hanson on Freakonomics

DISCLAIMER: This is an exploration of a theoretical economics problem. This is not advice. I have not made up my mind. Please do not cite this post as support for your plans to indulge in mayhem or selfishness.

Suppose you want to lead a life that, compared to the average resident of an industrialized country, is relatively altruistic. Say you value your own comfort and pleasure at roughly 10× the comfort and pleasure of a stranger who currently lives across the world from you. You are likewise relatively patient, risk-neutral, and scope-sensitive compared to your peers; if you believe that there is a 10-3 chance that 109 people will die in a specific kind of catastrophe that would occur in the year 2031, then you would factor that into your plans at a discount of only two orders of magnitude. In other words, you would be indifferent between (a) the risk of the future catastrophe and (b) the certainty of 104 people dying today. Moreover, you are reasonably well-calibrated; if you say something will happen with 95% certainty, it actually does happen about 90 out of 100 times. Finally, suppose you have an IQ of roughly 130, and no crippling physical or mental disabilities. My numbers are meant to sketch a crude portrait of one plausible kind of amateur rationalist; if you don't like the numbers, please mentally substitute your own and move on, because the exact numbers aren't my point.

My point is this: does it make sense to follow social norms like tipping, waiting in line, making small talk with strangers, and paying taxes when you're reasonably sure that nobody who's important to you is watching? Although such norms are cheap to follow in terms of individual situations, they recur frequently -- if you make a habit of skewing your time toward bars and clubs that take cash under the table, you'll put a serious dent in your entertainment budget. Repeat this across several different areas of your life, and you're looking at significant resources. As an amateur rationalist, with the time and money you save by cheating on 'responsible' habits, you should in theory be able to get slightly more work done and/or donate slightly more money to efficient charities. You might even be able to invest the time and money into bootstrapping your own economic productivity, allowing you to accelerate your donation timetable by a few hundred $/yr, and thereby, over the course of your life, save another hundred lives or so. Assuming you never get caught, isn't that worth the mild inconvenience you cause to several thousand strangers? Assuming you do occasionally get caught, does that really tip the balance back toward following the rules? Remember that you're well-calibrated, so while you do make mistakes, you should in theory be able to identify situations where you are extremely unlikely to get caught, cheat in all such situations, and then only get caught on extremely rare occasions. 

It certainly *feels* good to tell stories about how social niceties pay off. Following these kinds of rules and making arguments that we should follow them both signal a certain kind of pro-social, well-adjusted, trustworthy, successful attitude. Plus, it would be nice if everybody got what they deserved; i.e., if not tipping actually led to something like bad karma. Even without mystical influence, not tipping might lead to individual punishments if, e.g., it's impossible not to feel guilty about it, or it subtly alters your personality for the worse, or if people inevitably catch you when you least expect it and then impose costs on you that are worth more than the cumulative money you saved on that occasion plus the money you saved on all the other occasions when you weren't caught.

Those kind of mechanisms seem unlikely to me, though. Because of wishful thinking, though, I would imagine that we tend to overestimate the chance that something like karmic balance actually obtains. What do you think?

EDIT: Please try to cope with The Least Convenient Possible World when imagining examples, rather than simply picking average examples that suggest, e.g., that you will certainly be caught, as this is contrary to the spirit of the exercise. E.g., for tipping, imagine dining alone at a chain restaurant with high turnover while traveling through a town you rarely visit. For avoiding small talk, imagine you are on a light rail in the exurbs with your laptop, typing up some notes, a full twelve minutes from the nearest likely source of enough extra passengers to disturb your personal space, alone in a car with a nice old man who wants to talk to you, apparently ad infinitum, about the 1954 Brooklyn Dodgers' infield. If you don't want to eat at restaurants, that's fine -- pick some other relevant pleasure or luxury that an amateur rationalist might indulge in. If you own a car, should you ever refuse to let someone in who's waiting to merge, assuming that maintaining your current speed in your current lane is unlikely to increase your risk of an accident? If you rent or own a house in the western United States, should you ever use scarce water to irrigate your flowers, given that your neighbors are not environmentally conscious enough to notice whether you are using ecologically thrifty plants? Etc. An interesting counter-argument is "it takes too much mental energy to identify occasions when I won't be caught." A boring counter-argument is "I'll surely be caught." The latter violates an explicit assumption of the problem.

29 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by drethelin · 2011-07-12T06:28:46.907Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If if the difference between tipping and not tipping is enough to boot-strap you up levels in economic productivity you should definitely not be eating at restaurants at all. Consequence-wise, I'd say you'd be a reasonable dick to tip only at restaurants you actually frequent. If you're only going to be at a place once in your life the value of being friendly with the employees is basically zero, whereas if the same person is going to feed you every day for months then you get significantly better service when you tip well.

Defecting from standing in line isn't bad because some theoretical superior would see it, it is because being a blatant dick to strangers increases your risk of altercation a lot, not to mention the more general societal problem of encouraging this kind of defecting leading to greater overall inefficiency as people swarm instead of standing in line.

Making small talk is less clear cut, and if you don't value serendipitously making new friends I can easily be convinced that the effort to pursue it is worth less than whatever it is you might be doing otherwise (though honestly it's not like your elevator standing time was going to be that productive in any case)

Paying taxes is NOT a social norm. Not paying them is actually illegal, and can get you into serious trouble. This is not a big deal on the small scale, and if you're a single individual who isn't particularly prosperous you can definitely get away with not paying them, but if you're actively planning on becoming extremely economically successful based on this extra money, an audit could put serious crimps in your style

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-07-12T18:05:09.918Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If if the difference between tipping and not tipping is enough to boot-strap you up levels in economic productivity you should definitely not be eating at restaurants at all.

Depends on how much you value your time.

comment by drethelin · 2011-07-12T18:40:57.536Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you're implying that cooking for yourself takes longer than eating out, but this is only true for complicated meals. I can make myself hamburgers or a steak far faster than any restaurant I would have to tip at, though admittedly slower than something like mcdonalds. This is without even counting the possibilities offered by instant ramen

comment by [deleted] · 2011-07-12T14:09:53.480Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could always eat at every restaurant, demand replacements for your food because of defects (which don't have to exist) to get MORE food, AND not tip. Quite a number of restaurants will offer free food if they think you're unhappy.

Or you could go to a fast food restaurant and always take extra condiments and napkins for home use.

Or you could keep a used and washed soda cup in a backpack and sneak free refills at a busy fast food restaurant.

In general, you can justify a truly enormous number of tempting things to yourself with "In this PARTICULAR case, it happens to be perfectly appropriate to do (insert any action which you wouldn't normally do.)" To the point where it is a well known trope and it also gets a reference in chapter 10 of Methods of Rationality.

"Amusing, but that was not your first fleeting thought before you substituted something safer, less damaging. No, what you remembered was how you considered lining up all the blood purists and guillotining them. And now you are telling yourself you were not serious, but you were. If you could do it this very moment and no one would ever know, you would. Or what you did this morning to Neville Longbottom, deep inside you knew that was wrong but you did it anyway because it was fun and you had a good excuse and you thought the Boy-Who-Lived could get away with it -"

That's unfair! Now you're just dragging up inner fears that aren't necessarily real! I worried that I might be thinking like that, but in the end I decided it would probably work to help Neville -

"That was, in fact, a rationalization. I know. I cannot know what the true outcome will be for Neville - but I know what was truly happening inside your head. The decisive pressure was that it was such a clever idea you couldn't stand not to do it, never mind Neville's terror."

The other problem is that there is a well known process for how discrete actions (Move hand to object, grasp, move hand up to slot, insert grasped object, turn grasped object for a discrete period of time based on audio cues, release grasped object.) becomes trained tasks (Start Car)

What I see as the problem is where you start by thinking to yourself on a somewhat regular basis "Yeah, I can allow explicit special cases as long as the harm to others is at this relatively low level." and then get to "I can do harm to others whenever appropriate as the harm to others is at this relatively low level." as the new normal followed by a new special case where the harm is just a little bit higher.

To sum up, it's not the individual discretionary steps that I would worry about (any individual discretionary step can frequently be justified) it's the training effects of putting them all together on a regular basis.

Note: Edited to fix formatting.

comment by InquilineKea · 2011-07-12T13:29:23.520Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Surprisingly, overtipping can be pretty rational (well, at least according to Yishan Wong, who is quite a rational person, based on his posts on Quora)

http://www.quora.com/Life-Advice/What-life-lessons-are-counter-intuitive-or-go-against-common-sense-or-wisdom

Overtip everywhere you go. Usually, the only way to be treated like royalty at restaurants and service establishments is to be a celebrity (or royalty). The other way is to be the person known for tipping well. Especially at places you frequent often, make a point of tipping extremely well - at least in the 20 - 25% range or more (especially for small-dollar amounts, where you can tip high percentages without spending a large absolute amount). The idea is to stand out as the person who tips significantly better than all the other customers. The employees there will get to know you astoundingly quickly, they will memorize your preferences, they will learn your name (even if it is a weird ethnic one), they will ask after your health, and they will make a point of asking if there is anything extra that you'd like (and sometimes comp you stuff) and generally go to great, polite lengths to make sure you are happy. You will feel like a celebrity and when you bring your friends, it will impress them that the proprietor knows you and treats you so well. Real celebrities don't really come around that often (unless you're living in L.A.), so you will end up being the special customer they lavish all their attention on - the local high-roller. Especially if you aren't actually rich, you are just choosing to be a great tipper, it will make you seem like a really great person. All of this extraordinary service can be had by simply voluntarily marking up your own bill by 10% over the usual cost. Did you get a raise? If so, don't go eating at a nicer restaurant, stay at the same restaurant you've enjoyed all along, and just pay more for better service.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-12T18:07:32.506Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought 20% was standard these days. It certainly doesn't get me noticed in Philadelphia.

comment by InquilineKea · 2011-07-13T04:32:23.074Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh interesting. Maybe things are different between the East Coast and the West Coast? The West Coast seems to care less about rules/social norms/richness.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-13T07:13:26.607Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should definitely count this as one data point, which might not even generalize to other cities or more expensive restaurants.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-07-20T17:33:46.677Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience is the same as Nancy's; where I live, I think you would have to consistently tip 30% or up before you would start to become memorable to the staff.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-12T05:46:45.784Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For social and ethical-psychological reasons, tipping is part of the cost of eating at restaurants; people who do not tip will send bad signals and affect themselves and their dispositions in negative ways. If rationalists eat at restaurants where tipping is customary, we should tip at restaurants.

However, it is possible that we should not eat at restaurants.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2011-07-12T06:24:38.245Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could you elaborate, please? I have the sense that you have something valuable to teach me here, but as it is currently written I am unable to distinguish your comment from "Hooray for following the norms of any institutions you choose to participate in."

comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-12T06:35:48.755Z · score: 24 (24 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. Not tipping at a restaurant where it is customary sends negative signals, which may sometimes have a greater marginal impact than the saved money.

  2. Humans are wired to derive dispositions, including ethical and niceness-related dispositions, from our past behavior. Not tipping sets a bad internal precedent even if no other person you care about signaling to sees you. It sends a bad signal to yourself and runs the risk of making you a worse/meaner/self-serving person compared to what you are/should be.

  3. If this is really about saving money, you should be eating at home, or getting your food someplace cheap that doesn't encourage tipping. Or getting someone else to buy your dinner and having them tip. Or skipping the meal. These things are sufficiently near "don't tip" in the search space that I don't think this post is actually about saving money.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2011-07-12T07:01:39.775Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Humans are wired to derive dispositions, including ethical and niceness-related dispositions, from our past behavior. Not tipping sets a bad internal precedent even if no other person you care about signaling to sees you. It sends a bad signal to yourself and runs the risk of making you a worse/meaner/self-serving person compared to what you are/should be.

Thanks, I think this is the point I was missing. It's a good point.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-07-12T19:48:20.208Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Australia the employees at the restraunt get paid. The customers pay money to the restaurant for the goods and service of food and the presentation thereof in accordance to laws of supply and demand. I am not sure to what extent the supply and demand governs how much the wait staff get paid - it would bottom out at the minimum wage of $15/hour.

Sometimes we tip as well, but this isn't a social norm or an ethical obligation of fulfilling an implied contract. It is an act of social finesse. The delicate dance of giving and receiving favours to fulfil ephemeral goals. This is approximately the same question as "when (if ever) and why should rationalists give higher than average tips?" It is certainly a recommended social strategy at times.

But while I'm visiting in America I tip at restaurants according to whatever the norm is. A good rule of thumb is that if you are in an environment where you do not have a sophisticated understanding of how the systems work you follow the rules fully. It is only when you are familiar with the domain or culture that you can safely break rules and reliably predict any negative consequences.

comment by byrnema · 2011-07-12T13:39:47.945Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you sit down at a table with service, you are entering a contractual relationship with the waitress (and also with the restaurant). If you are not going to tip the waitress, a person concerned with honoring contracts would say so, and if they're not going to order food, they would again request permission from the waitress. This is just to demonstrate that there is a contract. In practice this wouldn't work, because the waitress is bound by social norms and the demands of the restaurant to serve you anyway. Thus, not tipping is a form of stealing.

The reason why there is this confusion about whether tipping is required is because the contract is between just the pair of people (the person paying for the meal and the waitress) and it can be a subjective matter whether the waitress has upheld her part of the contract. If you don't believe she has upheld her service component of the contract, you can tip less or not at all.

But not tipping a waitress who has given good service is not completely unlike secretly pocketing one dollar of her tip from another table, especially if she is busy and she has paid the opportunity cost of not serving another table. Sitting down and explaining you only have 80 cents for coffee is OK (socially acceptable) but you should realize you are requesting her service and time for free.

There are lots of societal rules that expected to be followed even if they aren't enforced. Is it OK to take a banana from a fruit vendor and start eating it? It's very unlikely they will call the cops -- they will probably just complain loudly in an effort to shame you. But if you don't feel shame, can you then take bananas freely?

Harder question: If someone tells you they lost their wedding ring and you find it in the stairwell, can you sell it if you plan to give the money to save lives of starving children? I guess this idea was explored in Robin Hood. What if you happen to know they're cheating on their spouse?

I simultaneously feel applause lights for 'being rational means being free of constraints that are only perceived' and applause lights the moral feeling that 'the ends can't justify the means'; if you want to save starving children, you should find a good path to doing so. But then I don't use my disposable income to save starving children, so I don't know that my morality is on the up-and-up anyway. I will relate that when I was in my early 20s I went through a stealing phase (in ethically light-gray cases). I just didn't see what the consequences were and I didn't care about social norms. Now that I'm an adult with something to lose (I have a job and am a parent), I'm grateful for society and I think that getting along with society is pretty important. I wouldn't steal, not even from a big anonymous corporation. (Just the other day, our chain saw broke while we were using it and my husband and I debated about whether we could ethically exchange it.) But too many times society has given me the benefit of the doubt and given me a break, so I am motivated to act in good faith even when it's not 'required'.

comment by Benquo · 2011-07-12T05:43:03.203Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: Summary of my comment: noticing whether you would get caught costs a lot of mental energy that would likely be more productively used elsewhere.

On one hand:

  • You get to do something better with the money. Given that possibility, it's wasteful to spend it on something like tips instead.

  • Most people (at least in the US) tip, and therefore are motivated to come up with arguments for tipping. This means we have probably heard more arguments for than against, relative to the true merits, and should discount the case for tipping appropriately.

On the other:

  • Getting caught sends a terrible signal to possible allies that you will defect when you think a rule is unenforceable. It's hard to know when you will get caught, so the mental energy required to track likely consequences is likely to far exceed the value of the money saved from not tipping.

  • Human beings often value deontological or virtue ethics, not consequentialism. You will feel (and therefore act, i.e. give of signals) like a bad, guilty person. This effect will vary a lot depending on your disposition. It also might be a poor trade for your utility function, again varying by individual values and dispositions.

  • TDT-like considerations, a desire to gain cooperation from other TDT agents on single-shot prisoners' dilemmas.

I consider only my first argument for tipping to be a strong one, but on its own I think it is strong enough that I would be quite surprised if a rational sociopath (e.g. Quirrelmort) failed to tip.

comment by endoself · 2011-07-12T06:05:10.185Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Human beings often value deontological or virtue ethics, not consequentialism. You will feel (and therefore act, i.e. give of signals) like a bad, guilty person. This effect will vary a lot depending on your disposition. It also might be a poor trade for your utility function, again varying by individual values and dispositions.

It might also motivate you to be extra careful to use the money well so you can justify your actions.

TDT-like considerations, a desire to gain cooperation from other TDT agents on single-shot prisoners' dilemmas.

Most waiters aren't TDT agents. TDT's prisoner's dilemma algorithm is to cooperate if and only if your opponent will cooperate if and only if you cooperate.

I consider only my first argument for tipping to be a strong one, but on its own I think it is strong enough that I would be quite surprised if a rational sociopath (e.g. Quirrelmort) failed to tip.

Agreed.

comment by Benquo · 2011-07-12T12:22:55.627Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the TDT argument is a very strong one, but it is slightly stronger than you seem to think.

By tipping you're not only cooperating with the waiter (who provided good or bad service before the tip was revealed) but also with past and future customers (the tipping practices of past customers may influence the quality of waiter you get and the quality of service they provide, and your tipping practice affects the outcomes experienced by future customers).

comment by endoself · 2011-07-12T18:16:16.989Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think most customers are TDT agents either.

comment by Benquo · 2011-07-12T21:33:13.628Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, that's why the argument is weak.

comment by Emile · 2011-07-12T13:49:51.088Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that Tipping norms vary a lot from one culture to another:

  • In the US, if you don't tip at restaurants, you're being a major selfish dick

  • In France (and China, and as far as I know most of Europe), tipping in restaurants is optional, for good service

As a result, American servers don't like having European clients, because these often don't know they're expected to tip.

So different people may be approaching the subject with different preconceptions about what tipping implies about morality (I'm thinking of lucidfox's "Tipping is voluntary. If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, don't. There isn't anything inherently altruistic or jerkish about either scenario", which would probably sound wrong to an American). I assume the OP was talking of tipping in an American context.

comment by Emile · 2011-07-12T12:09:57.983Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I value not being a dick, and not only nobody finding out that I'm a dick.

Maybe if I was magically changed so as not to care about whether I was a dick or not, I wouldn't act like a dick in most ordinary situations because of the negative consequences of people finding out that I'm a dick. But I don't want not care about being a dick, because then I'd be a dick, and I don't want to be a dick.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-07-12T18:04:08.851Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I value not being a dick, and not only nobody finding out that I'm a dick.

Could you taboo the word "dick".

Incidentally, this sounds like an argument based on virtue ethics.

comment by Emile · 2011-07-12T20:38:49.368Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By a dick I mean the kind of person who does thing I disapprove of - cutting in line, abusing free resources, defecting in prisoner's dilemma-type situations, etc. I may not have a perfect reductionist-grade definition, but I have a mental concept I don't want to be associated to (and I suppose the same goes for most neurotypical humans).

comment by lucidfox · 2011-07-12T12:36:03.014Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should Rationalists Tip at Restaurants?

It's a loaded question that presents the word "rationalist" as some kind of straightjacket regulating minutae of your daily life.

Tipping is voluntary. If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, don't. There isn't anything inherently altruistic or jerkish about either scenario, and it's certainly not something an ideology can dictate.

social norms like tipping, waiting in line, making small talk with strangers, and paying taxes

You're lumping apples and oranges here. Tipping and small talk are unenforceable, culture-specific social expectations. Waiting in line is a general "do unto others..." guideline, but I'm sure you'd face sanctions from guards if you tried to break it in anything remotely official. Tax evasion is a legally punishable crime.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-07-12T18:10:31.478Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a loaded question that presents the word "rationalist" as some kind of straightjacket regulating minutae of your daily life.

Tipping is voluntary. If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, don't.

Couldn't you apply the same logic to anything, theism, lotteries? Strictly speaking following the law is also voluntary, it's just that there are generally unpleasant consequences if you get caught.

comment by Manfred · 2011-07-12T05:53:40.357Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bang, a relevant link that expresses my opinion!

Tipping is mostly fuzzy, partly altruistic and a little non-fuzzy non-altruistic (superrational equilibrium keeping the restaurant in business, etc). However, if the value of tipping is depressed by you not wanting fuzzies and having better methods for altruism, and you need the money, go ahead.

comment by handoflixue · 2011-07-12T18:47:07.943Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The internal cost of cheating is usually unacceptably high; it makes me feel bad! It makes me feel bad, because I'm violating my own sense of what is "right". If my morality says it's okay to cheat, such as declining small talk and continuing to read my book, I'm totally okay with it.

There's also usually very minimal benefit. Of the examples listed, "tipping" is the only one I'd be genuinely tempted to avoid if I could, except that it's a social norm here and it would therefor effectively be stealing (by my own morals)

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-07-12T06:21:32.123Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Ethical Injunction Sequence seems relevant.