The Good-on-Paper Effect: How the Decision Context Influences Virtuous Behavior

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.2021.1347

In a series of 10 studies, we find that people are more likely to make virtuous decisions on paper than on a digital device because they perceive choices on paper as more real (i.e., tangible, actual, and belonging to the physical rather than the virtual world) and hence as more self-diagnostic (i.e., representative of who they are). We first show people express more interest in donating and volunteering (Studies 1a and 1b), are more likely to donate (Study 2), and put more effort into helping a charitable cause (Study 3) when these choices occur on paper (versus tablet)—a pattern of decision making we label the good-on-paper effect. Study 4 extends these findings to book choices (highbrow versus lowbrow) and to a device interaction that closely mimics writing on paper (i.e., tablet with digital pen). In the context of volunteering decisions, we then provide evidence for the sequential mediating roles of perceptions of realness and self-diagnosticity in the good-on-paper effect (Study 5 and Studies 6a and 6b). Finally, we show that chronic (Study 7) and situational (Study 8) perceptions of self-diagnosticity moderate this effect in the contexts of environmental protection and food choices (healthy versus indulgent), respectively. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.

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