Electronic Signatures: Soulless and Unreliable?

As an aside to the discussion of a possible regulation on e-signatures in Ontario, I refer you to a recent article on the psychology of electronic signatures:“Paperless and Soulless: E-signatures Diminish the Signer’s Presence and Decrease Acceptance.”

It turns out that people don’t think that other people who sign electronically are as ‘engaged’ as they are if they sign by handwritten signature. As a result, they don’t think the e-signers are as likely to comply with obligations that they sign up for, and they don’t take e-signed documents as seriously as hand-signed ones or as likely to be as binding in practice.

We have a different kind of connection with an e-document than with a paper document, and the connection we make to it by signing is also considered different.

Any number of laws making e-signatures the legal equivalent of handwritten signatures (sometime on condition, sometimes generally) are not overcoming the natural suspicion.

The notion that e-signatures often lack the ‘ceremonial’ function of handwritten signature has been around since the mid-1990s at least. This article puts some study data behind just what is lost with the ceremony, though that word is not used.

Does this sound credible to you? In any event, would it change how you advise your clients when called upon to sign something electronically? Would you choose a more ‘engaged’ or ‘ceremonial’ e-signing process if you had the choice? Would you prefer a stylus-on-tablet e-signature to a ‘click-through’ signature or a cryptographically generated signature, just for the client experience and the client’s state of mind?

Is there any way to measure this psychological trustworthiness in order to refer to it in a regulation about preferred or valid e-signing methods?


  1. David Collier-Brown

    As an unreconstructed computer nerd, I entirely agree: electronic pseudo-signatures are, well, excessively psuedo.

    To commit myself to something where email won’t do, I at least add a facsimile of my written signature, or print it out, sign it and scan it back in.

    To me, an electronic signature is far too close to an imprint from a signet-ring, back from the days where even the gentle-born were illiterate. Now we can sign out own names, let’s do so.

    [I still have my father’s signet ring from Clan Lamont, but I haven’t used it since I was a kid and made seals with candle-wax to impress my little friends]