September 04, 2012
Size May Not Matter, But Placement Does
The Wired article reports on research by Lisa Shu, a psychologist and Visiting Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. While earlier research showed that signing (as opposed to printing) our names generally promotes more honesty, Professor Shu's research showed that signing at the top of a document, before one started making factual statements, significantly enhances honesty. In some studies, signing at the bottom has the same effect on honesty as not signing at all.
Professor Shu thinks that most people want to be honest and that signing in advance gives them a reminder or a nudge. Some people will never lie and some people will lie in a cavalier way. The placement of the signature block affects the people in between. The challenge is how to operationalize Professor Shu's insights. If one wants people to sign documents before they fill them out, placing the signature block at the top is not necessarily effective.
It is dangerous to generalize based on one's own idiosyncratic habits. That caveat aside, I don't think I would sign a blank document before I had filled anything in. And I don't think that is because I went to law school. It's just an extension of the reasoning that leads me to sign personal checks only after I have filled in all the relevant information. So, even if the signature block were at the top of a document, I still would sign last.
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