Most of us recognise the importance of paying careful attention to documents before we sign them. In the workplace, signing our name on a document could commit us to long term employment contracts, supplier agreements or partnership ventures. In our personal lives putting pen to paper can commit us to years of mortgage payments and marriage. Our signature acts as a pledge that can be legally binding. As a result paying attention before we sign is of the utmost importance.
But what about after we sign a document? Could the simple act of signing our name on a piece of paper influence the decisions we make afterwards – even if those decisions are unrelated to the document we have signed?
Past research has found that far from being a series of squiggles and curves that serve as a personal and unique mark to reduce the likelihood of forgery, our signature can often play other important roles including reinforcing our self-identity. For example studies have shown that the size of a person’s signature can change depending on how they think about themselves, with people sometimes unconsciously increasing the size of their signature when their self-esteem is raised or when they want to convey their uniqueness or social status. (Zweigenhaft 1977).
In order to test this ‘Signature Effect’ Kettle and Häubl recruited people to take part in a series of laboratory and field studies which first required people to evaluate how closely they could identify with a range of different products. These products included everyday items such as digital cameras and running shoes. After evaluating these products, everyone was given a handwriting task which required them to either, (a) sign their name, (b) print their name, or in the control condition, (c) do neither.
In reality the handwriting task was a cover to ensure that some people signed their names and others didn’t. The real study started when the researchers then sent everyone shopping. Remarkably they found that those people who had signed their names were significantly more likely to become engaged in choosing and purchasing goods that they had identified an affiliation with compared to the groups who had printed their names or not written their name at all. This was the case even if they had previously expressed a preference for the products on offer.
(As an extra test Kettle and Häubl positioned researchers with stopwatches in stores to measure how long these subjects spent shopping and to count how many products they tried on or reviewed).
In explaining the results Kettle and Häubl believe that the act of signing our name has a priming effect that serves to unconsciously remind us of our identity and as such can influence subsequent decisions related to our identity. In fact they go on to report several potential implications after providing a signature and they suggest that very few consumers would anticipate that signing their name in one setting might increase subsequent consumption in another.
They also point out some potentially novel interventions that businesses could potentially use to influence customer behavior. For example asking customers to sign their name after completing a survey, entering a prize draw, or enrolling in a loyalty program could lead to greater engagement in consumers who identify closely with that business’s products and services.
I wonder though whether there is potentially an even more significant application of this signature effect.
Anyone who is required to give evidence as a witness in a court of law is first required to take an oath promising that their verbal testimony is a true and accurate reflection of the facts as they know them to be. Yet in the case of a written testimony the signature more often than not comes at the end.
In the light of this signature effect one wonders whether people would be influenced to complete job application forms, insurance claims, tax returns and other such documents more honestly, accurately and completely if they were required to sign the declaration at the start of the document and not, as is the more usual practice, at the end.
What potential ethical applications of this Signature Effect come to mind for your business?
Would it be both wise and ethical to change where signatures are placed on common legal documents and what might be the potential upsides and downsides of such an approach?
Zweigenhaft, Richard L. (1977), “The Empirical Study of Signature Size,” Social Behavior and Personality, 5 (1), 177-185.
Kettle, K., and Häubl, G. (2011) “The Signature Effect: How Signing One’s Name Influences Consumption-Related Behavior” Journal of Consumer Research, (Forthcoming)