Sep. 30, 2015

What’s in a Name? The Toll E-signatures Take

Handwritten signatures have been used for hundreds of years to symbolize a promise. Whether on a business deal, an I-owe-you, or a hand written letter, they demonstrate a personal commitment. Increasingly, however, electronic signatures have become more and more prevalent in our technological world. Batten professor Eileen Chou noticed this growing trend of replacing traditional handwritten signatures with e-signatures and investigated whether the technological improvement can actually take a toll on our individual honesty.

For legal purposes, the two forms of signatures serve the same function, a binding agreement. However, Chou discovered several common forms of e-signatures, (such as typing one’s name, checking a box, or using a randomized PIN) do not carry the same weight or sense of commitment as a handwritten signature. Children grow up practicing signatures, connecting their name to a personal self, and in turn a sense of morality. When that signature is replaced with a PIN, a typed name or simply a box to check that personal tie is severed, which can have adverse consequences.

In turn, the weaker sense of self could directly lead to individual cheating. By using various experimental designs, Chou showed that people who signed electronically also cheated more for personal gains. She reiterated: “Seven studies investigating seven types of e-signatures using six different cheating measures consistently demonstrated that despite their increasing popularity, e-signatures are largely ineffective for curbing dishonest behavior.”

The research has important policy implications. The IRS recently adopted electronic tax forms to close the gap between claimed and paid taxes, which has been attributed to individual false reporting. Congress has also begun to use “autopens” to sign legislation and petitions and federal judges sign court orders electronically. This research suggests that the ability to file taxes with an e-signature or sign legislations by proxy can further severe the personal connection people have with their signatures, possibly leading to less weighty consideration of issues.

Despite this seemingly dire diagnosis, the research does highlight a potential solution: Signatures made with a stylus could evoke the same level of self-presence as traditional handwritten signatures. Although future research is needed, it seems a promising way to bridge the gap between new technology and one of the oldest ways of representing the self.

Professor Chou’s research on e-signatures was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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