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Research: We Make More Virtuous Choices When Using Pen and Paper

As digitalization becomes the norm, more and more decisions that used to be made on paper are now being made via digital devices. And to be sure, this trend has many benefits — but the authors’ recent research suggests that it could also be causing people to make less virtuous choices. Specifically, a series of studies with participants across the U.S. and China found that people are less likely to choose the virtuous or responsible option when making a decision on a digital tablet than when using paper forms, menus, or other decision-making materials. This is because using paper makes a decision feel more real and thus more representative of the decision-maker as a person, ultimately making them more likely to make a virtuous choice. Of course, using paper doesn’t make sense in every context, but this research suggests that at least in certain situations, it can be an effective way to push employees, customers, or community members to make more-virtuous decisions.

From ordering food to buying a new book to making a charitable donation, more and more decisions that used to be made on paper are now being made on digital devices like tablets, phones, and computers. And this trend toward digitalization has many advantages, in particular when it comes to efficiency and sustainability — but could it also be negatively influencing how we make decisions?

We conducted a series of studies with more than 2,500 participants across the U.S. and China to explore the impact of the medium you use to make a decision, with a particular focus on decisions with some sort of moral component, such as whether or not to make a donation to a charity, or whether to choose a healthy or unhealthy entrée at a restaurant. We asked the participants to make a variety of these sorts of choices using either a paper form or a digital tablet, and despite controlling for all other variables, we consistently found that people who used paper made more-virtuous decisions than those who used a digital device: For example, participants who read their options and made a selection on paper were significantly more likely to give money to charity, choose a healthy entrée, and opt for an educational book rather than something more entertaining.

When a Decision Feels More Real, We Act More Virtuously

Why might this be? Our research suggests that the key mechanism driving this effect is how “real” the decision feels. We asked participants in two of our studies to describe how real or tangible a decision felt, as well as the extent to which they perceived the decision as representing who they were as people, and they consistently indicated that making a choice on paper felt more real and representative than making the same decision on a digital device. Follow-up analyses confirmed that when a decision felt more real, participants were more likely to feel that it was representative of who they were as a person, ultimately making them more likely to go with the virtuous or responsible option.

Interestingly, we found that this effect does not occur when people are making a decision on behalf of someone else. In another experiment, we asked participants to choose an entrée either for themselves or for a friend, on paper and on a tablet. When choosing for themselves, participants were much more likely to select a healthy option on paper than on a tablet — but when choosing for a friend, the medium had no effect on their choice. This further supports the idea that people are more likely to select the virtuous option when it feels like the decision reflects who they are as a person, whereas when a decision isn’t related to themselves, the “realness” of the medium makes less of a difference.

To Encourage Virtuous Decision-Making, Consider Using Paper

It may seem like a minor detail, but our research shows that the medium with which your customers, employees, or community members make a decision can have a major impact on the choices they make. This has implications for marketers, policymakers, and anyone seeking to encourage any sort of virtuous behavior. For example, to encourage customers to choose healthier options, restaurants might consider opting for paper rather than digital menus. Similarly, parents and educators might opt to provide students with paper rather than online book order forms, to increase the chances that they’ll choose educational reading materials. Charities and political groups may also benefit from paper pledge forms and volunteer sign-up sheets, rather than relying on websites or apps to solicit support.

Indeed, the shift to remote and hybrid work has pushed many decisions that might once have been made exclusively on paper onto digital platforms. While our experiments looked at a very specific set of decisions made in controlled environments, it’s possible that similar effects may be at play when it comes to in-person versus virtual interactions. If a decision made over Zoom or via an online poll feels less real and thus less representative of who you are than an equivalent in-person interaction, it could have important ramifications for the virtual workplace (though there are no doubt many other factors that contribute to employees’ decision-making in a real-world work setting).

Of course, using paper is far from a guarantee of virtuous behavior — and it certainly doesn’t make sense in every context. It’s also important to consider the impact of paper products on the environment, and if you do opt for paper menus, forms, or other decision-making materials, you should always aim to use recycled paper and make it easy for people to reuse and recycle when they’re done. There are also businesses for which paper just isn’t practical, such as e-commerce platforms or fully remote workplaces. In these contexts, managers may want to explore other strategies that could potentially make decisions seem more real in digital contexts, such as reminding users about the real-world impact of their decision. But when paper is an option, our research suggests that it can be an effective way to make a decision feel more real and representative of the decision-maker as a person, ultimately increasing the chances that they’ll make a virtuous choice.

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