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The Problem With E-Signatures

Unlike the real thing, it appears they do not promote honesty.
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(Photo: Marharyta Holodenko/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Marharyta Holodenko/Shutterstock)

While it may seem like a relic of the past, there's still a certain gravitas to signing your name on the dotted line. Picking up a pen and manually scribbling your signature constitutes a pledge—a sign that you take this transaction seriously and have every intention of following through on it, whether it's a marriage certificate or a credit card receipt.

As we move into an increasingly paperless world, this practice seems increasingly anachronistic. It's faster and more efficient to mimic the process through the use of an "e-signature."

But do these electronic representations have the same effect, in terms of impressing upon us the significance of this transaction and, more broadly, the importance of honesty and transparency? Newly published research suggests the answer is: not by a long shot.

"While many common e-signatures objectively perform the same function as signing by hand, they do not exert the same symbolic weight in subsequent decision-making," writes Eileen Chou, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia. "Seven studies consistently demonstrate these e-signatures' ineffectiveness for curbing individual dishonesty—one of the essential purposes of a signature."

Signing by hand dampened the temptation to cheat; doing so electronically did not.

Last year, Chou raised some eyebrows when she published a paper finding that people don't trust e-signatures as much as the real thing. This latest research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests we indeed have good reason to be suspicious.

Chou's first study featured 58 undergraduates, half of whom participated using a laptop, while the others used pen or pencil and paper. All participants were then instructed to pick up a 12-sided dice and roll it twice.

The subjects' total score (which ranged from two to 24) would be the number of raffle tickets they would receive; the more they accumulated, the greater their chances of winning a $50 prize. Since each participant was alone in a small room, "they were asked to self-report" their scores.

"Before participants rolled the die, they were asked to provide a signature to certify that they had read the instructions, and that the information they provided would be valid," Chou notes. "Half then signed by typing their name on the laptop, and the other half by signing a piece of paper by hand."

The results: "Those who submitted handwritten signatures did not report a sum that was different from the statistical average," she writes. But "those who submitted the electronic signature reported a sum that was, on average, 16.4 percent larger than those who submitted handwritten signatures."

In other words, signing by hand dampened the temptation to cheat; doing so electronically did not.

Chou demonstrated this dynamic again and again in subsequent studies. She found particularly striking the fact that this result occurred even though participants were required to sign at the beginning of each study rather than the end, which past research has found "can effectively decrease cheating behavior." Not so, apparently, when an e-signature is used.

Her research suggests that, psychologically, e-signatures simply do not carry the same weight as the traditional pen-on-paper version. "A person's unique handwritten signature is a symbolic extension of the self," she writes, and this creates a "profound bond."

"In sharp contrast, the bond people have with their e-signatures tends to be transient and ad hoc," she adds. This creates a "weaker sense of self-presence," and apparently reduces "the signer's sense of intimacy and attachment."

In other words, we don't invest an e-signature with the same meaning as a handwritten one, and thus take it—and the pledge of honesty it implies—less seriously.

So how do we solve this problem? Chou's findings suggest "the problem resides in how people sign, rather than how the signature is transmitted."

"Rather than reverting to signing with pen and pencil," she writes, "researchers could focus on ways to strengthen the symbolic tie between signers and their e-signatures."

Fortunately, Chou may have a solution: "Alternatively, we could develop technology that would enable people to submit their unique handwritten signatures electronically and, at the same time, mitigate dishonesty by requiring that the signature be made with the use of a stylus."

Indeed, that's how I sign my tax forms each year—by hand, but on a screen. The signature is then transmitted electronically to the I.R.S. along with the filled-out form.

It's a smart requirement, one that aligns with what Chou has demonstrated: For a signature to perform the function of keeping us honest, it needs to be created by our own hand, in our unique, individual scrawl.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.