A political sociologist at the University of Virginia has been studying people’s perceptions of electronic signatures. It emerges that trust in this type of validation method is far from being a given.

E-Signatures facing subconscious psychological barriers

An article by Eileen Chou entitled ‘Paperless and Soulless: E-Signatures Diminish the Signer’s Presence and Decrease Acceptance’, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science (SPPS), seeks to provide an objective view of the psychological impact of the various forms of electronic signature, a technology whose use has been increasing steadily in recent years. Eileen Chou, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, did not set out to question the actual security or authenticity of e-signatures, but solely to investigate the perceptions aroused by the process of signing documents digitally. She ran a series of experiments designed to assess people’s reactions to the phenomenon of an e-signature, analysing the reactions of several groups of English-speaking people in the United States to documents signed using various different electronic methods or by hand.

The first issue that was raised among those taking part in the study was the ‘social presence’ of the signature, i.e. what Ms Chou calls “the perception of a signature as an extension of the signer”. It turned out that e-signatures were perceived to carry a much lower ‘social presence’ than hand-written signatures. Participants admitted feeling rather distant from the electronic version and judging that it did not really carry the signatory’s identity.  They just had a deep-rooted suspicion that the signatory had somehow invested less heart and soul in the digital signature.

In the fourth of her linked experiments, Eileen Chou presented a group of participants with identical copies of a contract that had been signed in six different ways – five electronic and one handwritten signature. She then asked them to rank the contracts in order ranging from the one that was most likely to be breached to the contract most likely to be honoured. The results showed that participants felt that the signature with the lowest ‘social presence’ was the most likely to be infringed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, weaker signer presence inspired less trust. As with electronic voting, the trust factor is central to the future use of e-signatures, Eileen Chou’s study indicates.

Eileen Chou argues that there is some discrepancy between the readiness with which we adapt behaviourally to technological innovations and how we react to them psychologically. Very few participants in the study expressed basic opposition to e-signatures. However, at the subconscious level they felt that this approach was of lower trust value. So it remains to be seen whether e-signatures will catch on and find widespread acceptance or whether the behaviour-perception gap will remain.

By Guillaume Scifo