The Pen Makes You Honest

The Pen Makes You Honest

We take it for granted we can digitise everything. We also take for granted that the digitisation of a process makes it safer, more efficient and better than the physical version. This is especially obvious where we are busy digitising the previously physical forms and contracts commonplace to the domains of banking, finance, healthcare and law. 

Crucial to this process is how we capture someone’s agreement, with their signature as evidence of that agreement. Various forms of e-signature might include a tickbox, typing a name or uploading a previously created image.

However, what if there is a hidden psychological cost associated with e-signatures? In a fascinating research paper by Eileen Chou, it appears that signing a document with an e-signature does not encourage the same post-signature behaviour as signing with pen on paper. If this is so, it is a disaster for our rush to digitisation. Let me explain. 

Firstly, we have to accept that e-signatures have big economic consequences. Businesses are rushing to create e-signature systems and the technology is supposed to, by 2020, account for US$5 billion per year to the overall US economy. 

A technology-centric lens suggests that an e-signature is just a direct digital equivalent of its wet-ink counterpart. However, research suggests, that there is far more going on here. A signature has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years as a verification of intention. Signing our names, with our own signature, we activate our sense of self-identity. We both create and control the production of our signatures. Seeing it there, written in our own hand, evokes a deeper sense that we are beholden to whatever we have signed against.

In a related research paper by Kettle and Haubl, even the difference of physically printing our name instead of physically signing our signature, reduces our psychological state of self-activation. In their research, signing our name several times in a row powerfully impacts the retail behaviours that follow. By signing their names, consumers will interact with more merchandise, as long as they are shopping in a domain that matches their self-identity.

Back to Eileen Chou’s research on signatures. Over a set of seven experiments, she explored how various forms of ethical behaviour are affected, not only by the contrast of physical signatures and e-signatures but by different forms of e-signature.The results are very startling. 

Across the wide variety of experiments, e-signatures do not appear to encourage honest behaviour. People are more likely to cheat when they type their names than when they sign their name by hand. In fact, multiple forms of e-signature design, including checkboxes, self-created pins, computer derived pins and typed names fail to encourage as much post-signature honesty as do handwritten signatures.

Eileen Chou finishes her research by suggesting using an electronic stylus, or some other means of creating a more accurate digital equivalent of a physical signature. I would go one step further and suggest there are a wide range of different interactions that could be explored. This could include an audio-recorded oath, taking a picture of yourself, using a finger on a touchscreen. Anything that involves emotional effort and, as a result, increases a sense of self.

While it may seem more efficient, we may be paying a price in terms of honesty and compliance when we bypass the traditional signature. Does this mean it is impossible for us to leave e-signatures behind? Hardly. But it means that we need to more deeply investigate the impact of our digitisation of something as innocuous as a signature.

There is a common trend here. We are generally rushing to digitise everything that can be digitised, without really understanding the deeper psychological forces involved. 

Though we can get away with this sometimes, in other cases we miss out on something crucial about a pre-existing analogue behaviour. 


Chou, E. Y. (2015) What’s in a name? The Toll e-signatures Take on Individual Honesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 61.

Kettle, K. L., Haubl, G. (2011) The Signature Effect: Signing Influences Consumption-Related Behaviour by Priming Self-Identity. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 38. 


Photo of fountain pens by mik izi on Unsplash.

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