Tips, Clicks, and Charitable Gifts: The Persuasive Impact of a Single Touch

In 1984, researchers from the University of Mississippi and Rhodes College took a trip to a restaurant. They weren’t there for your standard trip to the family diner or a romantic dinner for two. They went to study how different interactions between waitstaff and restaurant patrons contributed to differences in tipping.

In the study, waitstaff briefly touched some customers when they returned their change after the bill was settled. The touch was either on the customer’s hand or shoulder. We probably wouldn’t give a second thought to this type of innocuous gesture if it happened in a restaurant we were visiting.

The outcome of this short touch, however, was powerful. Tipping rates were greater when the waitstaff touched the customers than when they did not. People were willing to give more additional money for the service they received after being touched.

In the no-touch condition, they gave 12.2 percent of the bill. In the shoulder touch, they gave 14.4 percent, and in the hand touch they gave 16.7 percent of the total bill. If we assume that a staff member might wait on ten tables a night for five nights a week, with a spend of $50 a table, this would be close to $6,000 of extra income a year. That’s a handsome sum simply by adding a short touch along with the bill.

Following this seminal work on restaurant tipping in America, other investigations throughout the late 1980s and 1990s have pointed to a similar pattern of data.

Some extended the results to different hospitality settings and customer behaviors. For instance, researchers at Virginia Com­monwealth University found that men and women consumed more alcohol when touched by their serving staff compared to when they were not. Their behavior was influenced simply by whether they received a touch on their shoulder for a moment while being asked if they wanted a drink.

Simply including brief social contact to a request—such as a touch on the arm—can increase our willingness to take part in surveys, to give money to charity, and even to look after a stranger’s dog.

Other researchers looked to see if the results of greater tipping following touch would extend outside of America. Researchers from the Université Bretagne Sud found that like their American counterparts, French customers tipped their server more when touched during a dining experience.

What caught my attention in the French study was that it was conducted at a time when tipping could be considered unusual, because legislation mandated that a 12 percent service charge be included on the menu. Service costs were already included in the price. This means that even after adding a tip, people still gave more when touched. All this makes clear that relationships between socially acceptable brief touches and positive evalua­tions of people and surroundings exist in different parts of the world and in different economic situations.

I was shocked by the effects of touch on tipping. I began to wonder if brief touches can impact other retail settings.

Persuasive touch

In the 1990s, Jacob Hornik of Tel Aviv University reported multiple experiments examining how touch impacts consumer responses. In one study, shoppers were approached as they entered a large bookstore. Each shopper was given a catalog containing information about discounts and items in the shop. Notably, some customers were touched lightly on the upper arm as they were handed the catalog, while others were not.

Those who were touched spent almost 63 percent more time in the store than those who were not touched. They also rated the store more favorably and spent nearly 23 percent more on prod­ucts. I know that a lot of shopping takes place online these days, but those are some impactful numbers.

Incidentally, there are now studies looking at how viewing touch can impact purchasing intentions as well. A brain imaging study led by researchers from Shenzhen University found that watching other people briefly touch products increased viewers’ intent to buy the items, an insight applicable to our modern world full of online shopping and media ads.

A brief persuasive touch can exert a strong impact, even between people who are otherwise strangers.

Brief forms of social touch can also increase friendly and prosocial behaviors. Simply including brief social contact to a request—such as a touch on the arm—can increase our willingness to take part in surveys, to give money to charity, and even to look after a stranger’s dog for 10 minutes while they pop into a shop!

One classic study in the 1970s found that people were more likely to give back a coin left in a phone booth if the previous caller touched them when they left the booth than if they did not. Nearly three decades later, a 2007 study in France found that people were more likely to give away a cigarette if the request was accompanied by a touch.

These findings show us how rudimentary touches that we encounter in everyday social interactions can provide a starting point for cooperation and compliance. A brief persuasive touch can exert a strong impact, even between people who are otherwise strangers.

Robot touch?

Even touch from a robot has been shown to impact how likely we are to engage with requests. In 2021, researchers in Germany published a study investigating how university students behaved during encounters with a humanoid robot that either did or did not touch their hand during a counselling conversation. The study, led by Laura Hoffman and Nicole Krämer, involved students interacting with a robot that looked a bit like a miniature version of Baymax from the Disney movie Big Hero 6.

The students were allocated to one of two groups. One group just talked with the robot. With the other, the robot reached out and touched them, patting the student’s hand three times before continuing the conversation. Think about it for a moment—do you think you’d be more likely to comply with a request from a robot if it touched you or just spoke to you?

This is precisely the question that Hoffman and Krämer asked. The request from the robot was for the students to join a course. The results showed that 81 percent of students answered “yes” when the robot touched them. Only 59 percent answered “yes” when the robot did not touch them. Touch from this little robot helped to persuade people to comply.

What if a customer service robot touched you on the way into a shop—do you think you’d comply more with a request to try a new product? Should this be allowed? In a society where interactions between humans and robots are likely to become more commonplace, these findings have powerful implications.

Excerpted from Touch Matters: Handshakes, Hugs, and the New Science on How Touch Can Enhance Your Well-Being by Michael Banissy. Published by Chronicle Prism, animprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2023 by Michael Banissy.