Sunday, September 2, 2007

Inequality of Splitting the Bill

A few days ago, I blogged about the inefficiency of splitting the bill. (Cliff notes version: when you split the bill, your dining companions bear much of the cost of your ordering more. This gives you an incentive to order more than you would otherwise.)

Today, the inequality of splitting the bill. I should probably explain this. When I was a graduate student, I had a opposite-sex roommate. We are both foodies, and would frequently go out to eat together. When the bill came, we would each put down a credit card. We split the bill evenly. So far, not too interesting.

Half the time, the bill turned out to be odd (not even, e.g., $46.13). In this case, it wasn't possible to split the bill exactly. It was common to see the bill split $23.06 and $23.07, and also $23.00 and $23.13. One of us had to pay more. I (a male) and not my roommate (a female) was always given the larger amount to pay. This happened far too often to be explained by chance. I wish I had recorded these data, but we split the bill in this fashion this dozens of times; the outcome was always (or perhaps almost always) the same.

In our case, it was easy to match credit cards to patrons (one name is typically female, the other typically male). Based on this mini and accidental experiment, I guess men nearly always pay the extra penny. Economically, this extra penny isn't a big deal; it it dwarfed by the higher cost that women are forced to pay for a variety of sevices (e.g., dry-cleaning). Over the course of our meals, the difference probably added up to less than the cost of a latte at Starbucks.

Psychologically, I think this is kind of interesting. Did servers think I was more able to pay? That I wanted to pay more? That paying more (or all) was my "role"? I wonder what will turn up based on differences in race; I wonder if gender differences are larger or smaller if the dinner looks like a work function, a date, or a social gathering.

I'd love to get actual data on this, so if you feel like it please help me out with an experiment.

Who can participate? You can participate if:

  1. you go out to dinner at a place that takes credit cards;
  2. you go with other people and are willing to "split the bill", putting down one credit card per person;
  3. some of your party could be reasonably identified from others in your party based on the names on your credit cards. This identification could be based on race, gender, or even age. (This would work well if Jennifer Smith (female) and John Jones (male) went out, or Jennifer Smith (Caucasian) and Jennifer Wong (Asian), or Mildred Smith (age 85) and Jennifer Jones (age 30). This need not work perfectly, as I'm sure there are plenty of Jennifer Smiths who are of Asian descent and plenty of Jennifer Wongs who are not.); and,
  4. the final bill turns out not to be evenly divisible by the number of people in your party. For example, the bill is odd for a table of two.

How to participate?
  1. If you get a bill that is not evenly divisible (e.g., $46.13 bill for two people), each person should put down a credit card with their name on it (which implicitly identifies whose credit card goes with each person).
  2. If asked, say you want to "split the bill" or "split the bill evenly". Do not mention that this isn't possible to the penny.
  3. Make a note of the following information and email it to me:
    • The location of the restaurant, name of the restaurant, and the date you went.
    • Your best guess about the age, race/ethnicity, and gender of the server (or the person who you think dealt with your credit card information), if possible.
    • The name, age, race/ethnicity, and gender of each person in your party. Approximate ages/ethnicites are fine if you don't want to ask your dinner date's age or ethnic background. We just want to know what a server might guess about these things by looking at you and your names.
    • The total bill amount (without tip) and how this amount was allocated among the people in your party.
    • Where on the table (near which person, etc) did the server place the bill? Did the server ask you what you wanted done with the cards you put down?
    • Did your dinner look to the server like an a) date, b) work function, c) social gathering of friends, or d) other (please explain)?

Thank you in advance.

9 comments:

Chloe said...

Hi Tyler-

I think you suggested experiment on splitting the bill is interesting.
As someone who has worked for a about 4 years in the restaurant business, I think it might be difficult to validate the results.

Often, if a server is given two or more credit cards and asked to split is evenly, rarely will they even look at the credit cards name. With todays restaurant software programs the servers are very rarely required to do any math, as there is a button to "split" the bill often up to six or seven times if necessary (of course this depends on the actual software).
My fear is that credit cards will be charged, on person will pay a few pennies more, but this will probably be more a game of chance than anything.

Marginal Foodie said...

Hi Chloe,

This is Marginal Foodie, though Tyler was kind enough to link to my site. Thanks for checking out my blog.

If what you are saying (servers generally don't look and a computer does the splitting math for us) is true, this would imply that if a man and a woman split the bill, each person should end up paying the extra penny about half the time.

This wasn't my observation the few dozen times when I tried it, but a) I didn't keep my data so this is not much of a fact and b) this was 8 years ago and computer programs may have made this result a historical relic.

Lise said...

Hmm. Every time I've been to a restaurant with a man/men, they always order larger/more expensive meals (e.g. steak) than I do, plus drinks, so their portion of the bill is larger already. Even if we split the bill and they were charged the extra cent, I'd still end up paying for part of their meal.

Marginal Foodie said...

Lise,
This is funny and well-put. If they are ordering more than they would otherwise because you are paying for half, this is inefficient. Either way, an unequal split would be "fair." Peyton Young (who just left Johns Hopkins for Oxford) has some great research on why people stick to 50-50 even when conditions aren't equal. To summarize and generalize, I think he'd say people do 50-50 because it is simple and the default, and so sounds fair even when it isn't.

Jessica said...

A related issue--alluded to in your proposed methodology--is who the server expects to pay the bill, measured by where he/she puts the bill on the table.

I have noticed a decided leaning toward any male in the group. When I lived in Oklahoma, the bill would always go to the male (my husband). 90% of the time, even when the credit card was mine with a clearly female name, the receipt would *also* go to him! In Maryland, the bill is typically placed near him, but I usually get my receipt.

I don't know how you're going to separate social issues from straight economics.

Seabiscuit said...

Unshared riches are a prison. Don't be cheap.

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