Do E-Signatures Change How People Think Of Documents?

Oct 22, 2015
Originally published on October 26, 2015 3:05 pm
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Let's talk about a side effect of technology. Many people can use e-signatures. You know, you're given a form. It's sent to you online. You don't sign with a pen. Instead, you check a box or press a button or use some other electronic means to show that you signed. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has come across some research suggesting that the way you e-sign can affect your state of mind. Shankar, what's the research say?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, this research comes from Eileen Chou. She studies leadership and public policy at the University of Virginia. And she told me that she often has to write recommendation letters for students, Steve. And increasingly, she submits these letters electronically and provides an e-signature. And so it got her thinking about whether handwriting her signature or providing an e-signature might subtly change the way that she behaved. Here she is.

EILEEN CHOU: I want you to think back to when you were little, and you want to create your very own signature. You spend hours crafting the best way, the best cursive to use, and the end product is also something that's very intimate to you. It represents who you are. It represents a piece of your identity.

INSKEEP: And you can think of that moment when you sign something, if it's a mortgage or a car loan, something like that, it feels like a very formal moment. But are you suggesting here that it's different if you're doing an e-signature of some kind?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly what Chou is finding, Steve. She conducted a series of experiments where volunteers used different signatures. So Chou had them, for example, solve puzzles and anagrams and report whether they succeeded or failed. Or she had them flip coins and report what happened so that they could win a reward if the coins came down a certain way. Or she gave them a job and she said, report how much time you spent working on the job so I can compensate you for the amount of time you've spent. In each case, volunteers had to sign saying they had provided accurate information. But some signatures were in handwriting, whereas others were e-signatures. And systematically, Chou finds that volunteers are more likely to cheat - to report they've solved more anagrams, worked longer, gotten luckier with the coins - when they used e-signatures rather than handwritten signatures.

CHOU: While these signatures are objectively the same, they do not carry the same psychological and the symbolic weight.

INSKEEP: Why not?

VEDANTAM: Well, Chou thinks that when we use an e-signature, it allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the promise that a signature is supposed to imply. So when she allows volunteers to submit a computer-generated code, for example, rather than a signature, cheating goes up even further. When you handwrite a signature in this highly personalized form that you've created, you're putting yourself, literally, on the line.

INSKEEP: Wow, so this causes me to think about e-signatures in a totally different way. You worry about e-signatures, that someone could fraudulently create your signature. But actually, the fraud you need to worry about is in your own head.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You're more likely to sign up to something that you don't believe.

VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right. I don't think the concern so much is security. The concern is psychological authenticity here, Steve. I mean, the implications here are if you want people to sign something, you might want to consider that the way they sign it can change their behavior. To state the obvious, of course, not everyone who uses an e-signature cheats, just as not everyone who uses a hand signature is honest. But what the study is suggesting is that the kind signature you use can place a little finger on your internal scale, tip you one way or the other.

INSKEEP: Shankar, would you mind just signing off on this particular report?

VEDANTAM: I'm just going to use a code, Steve, 3692.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research and also explores the science of dishonesty as well as other ideas on his podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.