Do You Tip? HBS Prof Discusses the Link Between Tipping and Corruption.

When you go to the salon, do you tip your hairdresser? How about when you order to go? How about those late night orders to Stone Hearth Pizza, do you tip the delivery guy? If you want to know how corrupt a given country is, you can just have a look at how much its citizens tip.  According to recent research, the more often that tipping is a part of a country’s culture, the higher they rank on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

This research has just been published by HBS professor Magnus Thor Torfason and his coauthors, Francis J. Flynn and Daniella Kupor, and it suggests intriguing information about the link between tipping and bribery.

Many people might find this counterintuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it. One can see how the habit of tipping for service could lead to a positive association with tipping for favors, or bribery — seemingly unrelated, but quite intertwined.

In the study, Torfason and his coauthors argue that “tips and bribes can possess striking similarities that may lead to their positive association. In a sense, both are gifts intended to strengthen social bonds and each is offered in conjunction with advantageous service.”  Really, the two are essentially the same action, differing in the timing of the gift. “Tips follow the rendering of a service, whereas bribes precede it.”

If you tip the laundry deliverer (and yes, many of you have them), you’re partially thanking him for his service and also inducing positive outcomes for the future. Next go around, your laundry just so happens to be delivered hours earlier and your clothes give off whiffs of spring breeze freshness in a way they hadn’t in the past. You’re getting this, right? From this point, it’s easy to see how the line between tipping and bribes can be pretty thin if not altogether a blur.

So, where does the US fall on the Corruption Perceptions Index anyway? A popular thought is that the US must be awfully corrupt since we practically tip everyone, everywhere, for everything. From an etiquette standpoint, it is only expected. Shouldn’t we be a completely corrupt society?

Not necessarily, Torfason explains. “Another variable which is hugely important is GDP, which we control for in this study.  And rich economies tend to have less corruption, in part because they are able to support strong legal institutions they are able to root out corruption.”

If you do control for GDP, however, and look at other thriving economies, the US doesn’t exactly come out squeaky clean. When one considers both the GDP and prevalence of tipping in the US, its level of corruption is very close to what one would expect it to be.

To judge people’s attitudes toward corruption, the researchers had participants read a vignette that described a wealthy businessman who was convicted of a crime that he claimed he did not commit. According to the vignette, the facts seemed to confirm that the businessman was guilty and that the man paid a judge to be partial to his case. Participants then reported their attitude towards the businessman’s behavior.  While this is quite clearly an example of unethical behavior, instances like this are culturally acceptable in some places and culturally unacceptable in others.

This brings us to the US and what is culturally acceptable here.  According to the Associated Press, last week, former Alabama governor Don Siegelman reported to prison to complete his bribery sentence. The New York Times reported the mayor of Trenton, New Jersey (the state’s capital city) was arrested last week for accepting more than $100,000 in bribes in exchange for selling city property at a fraction of its value. Moreover, in early August, Oracle Corp. paid $2 million to settle an SEC accusation that one of its subsidiaries violated U.S. Laws designed to prevent bribery overseas. Is it that this behavior in the US is acceptable until it’s exposed? Can this be curbed?

“That’s a very big question,” Torfason said. “In addition to the country-level correlation between tipping and corruption, we examined the effect of asking people to think about tipping in different contexts. We either asked people to think about tipping as a reward, or to think of it as something that encourages good service in the future. And we found that being asked to think about tipping in the latter context actually makes people more tolerant of behavior such as that described in these stories.”

That is, putting people in the mindset where people tip to encourage good service in the future actually leads them to respond less strongly when they hear stories about bribery.

The tip of this article? Tip to say thank you but never in advance.