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Signature effect

Author: Dr Simon Moss


When individuals sign their name, the area this signature covers has been shown to reflect their attitudes towards themselves. In particular, when the signature covers a large space, individuals are assumed to feel more positively about themselves. The size of a signature, therefore, can be used as an implicit--that is concealed--measure of self esteem (Zweigenhaft, 1977& Zweigenhaft & Marlowe, 1973).

The size of signatures also correlates with many similar traits or tendencies as well. For example, if people experience a profound need to be unique (Snyder & Fromkin, 1977), seem quite dominant (Jorgenson, 1977), or are elevated in status (Aiken & Zweigenhaft, 1978), their signature tends to be large. All of these tendencies tend to correlate or overlap with self esteem.

In addition, after people sign their name, their behavior may change as well. They become more likely to obey the honor code of their university (e.g., McCabe & Trevino, 1997 ).


In a typical study, individuals are asked to sign their name twice, usually under some guise. For example, in the study conducted by Rudman, Dohn, and Fairchild (2007), signed two consent forms at different times. The area this signature covers has been shown to reflect attitudes towards the self-effectively self esteem. More importantly, the difference in area between two times reflects change in implicit self esteem.

Because individuals sign their name purportedly for another purpose, they are not aware this procedure is a form of evaluation. In contrast, with some other techniques, such as the implicit association task, some of the terms do correspond to their own demographics or traits, potentially promoting self awareness, impression management, or other process that could bias the response (Stapel & Blanton, 2004).

To assess the size of signatures, a rectangle is constructed that is just large enough to envelope the entire name. The area of this rectangle--the length multiplied by the height--is used as an index of self evaluation.


Zweigenhaft and Marlowe (1973) showed that signature size is correlated with measures that assess explicit attitudes towards the self. Since this time, only a few studies have explored this issue in more detail.

Stapel and Blanton (2004), for example, showed the signatures covered a smaller area after, compared to before, individuals were exposed to subliminal primes of Albert Einstein. These primes have been shown to reduce evaluations of the self, because individuals feel unintelligent in comparison. These findings, therefore, partially validate the signature effect. As an important caveat, however, many of the studies that were undertaken by Diederik Stapel are now under investigation, because this researcher was shown to fabricate at least some of his results.

Rudman, Dohn, and Fairchild (2007) showed that signatures covered a large area after individuals were rejected by a peer. This finding might seem to contradict the observations derived from Stapel and Blanton (2004). However, Rudman et al. (2007) generated evidence to show this increase in the size of signatures represents a defensive reaction in which individuals strive, perhaps unconsciously, to amplify their self esteem, probably to diminish the anxiety that coincides with rejection or criticism.

Effects of signing documents

Signature and self identity

When individuals sign a document, using their signature, rather than merely write their name, a series of interesting consequences unfold. Individuals become more aware of their personal interests, preferences, values, and needs. For example, they become more absorbed in tasks they like, such as shopping in their favorite store, but less absorbed in tasks they do not like, such as shopping in a store they do not value.

In particular, individuals closely associate their signature with their identity--that is, their values, roles, beliefs, and preferences. Their signature is unique to them. Indeed, people feel their signature is a reflection of their personality. Accordingly, when people sign a document, their identity is more salient. They become more aware of their values and preferences. Their behavior is more likely to be governed by their primary needs and interests (Kettle & Haubl, 2011).

Kettle and Haubl (2011) undertook a series of studies, each demonstrating that signatures increase the salience of identity. To illustrate, in one study, some participants first signed a document with their signature. Other participants, in the control group, merely printed their name on this document.

Next, participants received extensive information about either three digital cameras or three dishwashers. Most of these individuals claimed to be more interested in the cameras than in the dishwashers. Their task was to decide which of these three items they preferred. The duration they dedicated to this task represented a measure of engagement.

Compared to the other participants, individuals who wrote their signature were especially likely to be engaged in the task of comparing the digital cameras, the items they perceived as interesting and important. In contrast, individuals who wrote their signature were not as likely as other participants to be engaged in the task of comparing dishwashers. Presumably, after signing the documents, individuals become more aware of their identity, values, and interests. They were, therefore, more likely to devote attention to tasks that align to these interests and less likely to devote attention to other activities.

The second study was similar, except the research was set in a natural setting: a retail outlet that sells running shoes. If participants identified themselves as a runner, signing their name increased the likelihood they would devote time and effort into choosing a suitable shoe. In contrast, if participants did not identify themselves as a runner, signing their name diminished their devotion to this task.

In the third study, participants were asked to specify either a group to which they belong, such as their ethnicity, or a group to which they do not belong. Next, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they feel a sense of similarity or attraction to this group. If participants had signed their name, they were more likely to feel similar to their own group but dissimilar to other groups. Presumably, after signing their name, people are more aware of the groups to which they belong. They become more aware of the similarities between themselves and these groups.

Related techniques

Drawings of nations

When people are motivated to secure the supremacy of their nation, they tend to overestimate the physical size of this country. For example, in general, people tend to overestimate the physical size of their country, but this tendencey is especially pronounced if they perceive the citizens of their nation as superior. They also underestimate the physical size of their rival nations.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Lorenzi-Cioldi, Chatard, Marques, Selimbegovid, Konan, and Faniko (2013), a sample of individuals from Switzerland received a map of Western Europe, in which all national borders had been removed. They were asked to draw the national borders of their nation. Next, they completed a measure of social dominance orientation, epitomized by items like "To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups". In general, participants overestimated the size of their nation, especially if they also reported a social dominance orientation, in which they were motivated to seek ascendance.

Subsequent studies uncovered similar patterns of results in Belgium, Ivory Coast, Portugal, and Kosovo. For example, in Kosovo, if people expressed negative attitudes to the Serbian minority, disagreeing with statements like "Serbs are reasonable persons", they overestimated the size of their nation. Finally, people were more inclined to underestimate the size of nations that are rivals to their own country& citizens of Ivory Coast underestimate the size of France but not Switzerland.


Aiken, L. R., & Zweigenhaft, R. L. (1978). Signature, size, sex, and status in Iran. Journal of Social Psychology, 106, 273-274.

Jorgenson, D. O. (1977). Signature size and dominance: A brief note. Journal of Psychology, 97, 269-270.

Kettle, K. L., & Haubl, G. (2011). The signature effect: Signing influences consumption-related behavior by priming self-identity. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 474-489. doi: 10.1086/659753

Lorenzi-Cioldi, F., Chatard, A., Marques, J. M., Selimbegovid, L., Konan, P., & Faniko, K. (2013). What do drawings reveal about people's attitudes toward countries and their citizens? Social Psychology, 42, 231-240. doi: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000067

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: a multicampus investigation. Research in Higher Education, 38, 379-396.

Rudman, L. A., Dohn, M. C., & Fairchild, K. (2007). Implicit self-esteem compensation: Automatic threat defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 798-813.

Snyder, C. R., & Fromkin, H. L. (1977). Abnormality as a positive characteristic: The development and validation of a scale measuring need for uniqueness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86, 518-527.

Stapel, D. A., & Blanton, H. (2004). From seeing to being: Subliminal social comparisons affect implicit and explicit self-evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 468-481.

Zweigenhaft, R. L. (1977). The empirical study of signature size. Social Behavior and Personality, 5, 177-185.

Zweigenhaft, R. L., & Marlowe, D. (1973). Signature size: Studies in expressive movement. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 40, 469-473.

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Last Update: 6/1/2016