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Cortney Norris

Investigating the tipping game tussle

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Media Contact: Jeff Hopper | Communications Coordinator | 405-744-1050 |

The restaurant industry hasn’t seen many large-scale innovations in the last few decades, but one Oklahoma State University researcher is hoping that focusing on a few key areas could change that fact in the coming years.

Dr. Cortney Norris, an assistant professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, is focusing on the highly debated culture of tipping in the restaurant industry. She hopes that investigating the tipping process from multiple perspectives will lead to a better understanding and new innovations to an antiquated system.

“By and large, the research into tipping has been focused on the customer’s point of view,” Norris said. “However, I’m hoping that by applying game theory to the tipping interaction, we can better understand all sides of the exchange, and develop new strategies that propose innovations that take all sides into consideration.”

Game theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant's choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. Game theory has been applied to contexts in war, business and biology.

In her research article, “Is tipping just a game? Applying game theory to restaurant tipping behavior” published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Norris and her co-authors D. Christopher Taylor, Scott Taylor Jr. and Michael Snipes explain that even recent studies on the tipping exchange tend to favor the customer perspective and struggle to address input from the service side of the interaction. As a former bartender and hospitality worker, Norris believes that true change can only happen when all sides are considered and the interaction between those parties plays a role in determining the actions of the other party.

“While most studies into this exchange account for the ‘normal factors,’ i.e. quality of care, timeliness, etc., I don’t think there has been an adequate amount of research that recognizes personality as a quantifiable variable in the equation,” Norris said. “Furthermore, while party size and regularity of customers was taken into account in published studies, we found that the definition of those variables has changed when investigating the service side of the exchange. Regular customers were someone that came in three to four times a month, as opposed to four to five times a year. Also, party size did play a factor in the tip size, however we found that servers didn’t see it as more or less work, but a different set of duties, more task oriented as opposed to relationship oriented.”

Norris believes that it is these kinds of discrepancies that need to be further studied in order to better understand the interaction between customer and server, and thus develop ideas that can change the payment/tip system for the betterment of all parties involved.

While recent proposals aimed at changing the payment/tipping system have been met with divided reactions, Norris believes that the resultant investigation into contributing factors and variables will eventually lead to change that will hopefully benefit all parties.

“There are many factors that contribute to the shortcomings of the restaurant industry,” Norris said. “The current tipping system may not be perceived as the largest issue, but it’s one that could have far-reaching effects throughout the industry if it were to change.

“It’s hard to predict what area of the industry will see the first significant change. However, the fact that we are having these discussions shows that there are catalysts for change and they are beginning to be noticed.”

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