Friday 27 August 2021
In the third article in this series, I am looking at print through the lens of something which has always fascinated me – human psychology.
Some of the psychological benefits of print relate directly to the fact that a printed document is a physical item you can touch, hold and feel. The mechanisms behind other benefits are harder to understand. For this reason, I have dived into the academic research in this area and will let the experts explain.
Academics have been conducting empirical research into reading on-screen versus reading on paper since the early 1980s. During this time, they have investigated many different aspects, including comprehension. And they have covered a variety of text genres, lengths and participant demographics. Interestingly, the results vary.
For example, in 2018 academics at The University of Valencia analysed the results of studies undertaken between 2000–20171 and found no increase in comprehension when reading narrative texts on paper rather than on a screen.
But for informational texts, they found that reading on paper resulted in better comprehension. Not only that, but the benefit of reading this sort of information on paper increased over the period they studied, even when making statistical allowances for the possibility that younger so-called ‘digital natives’ would be more biased towards screens.
Another popular subject for empirical research, the effect that the printed medium has on recall is largely attributed to printed materials being physical, multi-page documents with a beginning, a middle and an end.
As Anne Mangen of the Reading Centre of the University of Stavanger explains: ‘Reading involves less commonly acknowledged sensory modalities such as ergonomics and, more precisely, haptics and tactile feedback.’2
Mangen’s research comparing reading on a Kindle with reading on paper concluded that: ‘Basically comprehension was similar with both media, but, because kinesthetic feedback is less informative with a Kindle, readers were not as efﬁcient to locate events in the space of the text and hence in the temporality of the story. We suggest that, to get a correct spatial representation of the text and consequently a coherent temporal organization of the story, readers would be reliant on the sensorimotor cues which are afforded by the manipulation of the book.’3
Writing in Scientific American in 20134, Ferris Jabr agrees: ‘People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screen. Researchers think the physicality of paper explains this discrepancy.’ But he offers a slightly different explanation for the effect: ‘Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. Whether they realize it or not, people often approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. And e-readers fail to re-create certain tactile experiences of reading on paper, the absence of which some find unsettling.’
Printed documents are tangible objects. Readers can feel them in their hands. Writing in 20085, Dr Ziming Liu of San José State University identifies this tangibility as a critical benefit of print.
‘People are generally comfortable with information only when they can “feel it” in their hands and can make sure whether the important information is recorded properly. Why are all the important messages and agreements (eg diplomas, certificates, and contracts) put on paper? … The saying “put on paper” conveys the importance of this tangible document medium’.
In Ziming Liu’s quote above, notice how he mentions that print allows people to ‘make sure … important information is recorded properly’. This points towards another benefit of print: its trustworthiness.
In 2014, 60 percent of online Canadians used online bill payments, yet over 90 percent of online bill payers continued to receive paper bills. Joanne McNeish of Ryerson University in Canada undertook research6 to find out what the role of paper bills and statements is in relation to trust and distrust in online mobile banking. Here’s what she found:
‘Paper bills have a role in supporting the virtual relationship between consumers, and banks and billing firms so that the consumer is able to trust the actions of these firms while mitigating the vulnerability they feel when conducting online and mobile financial transactions.’
McNeish explains further, that ‘…paper bills and statements act as structural assurance through their tangible and easily verifiable qualities, helping consumers manage their distrust by avoiding dependence on firms for vital information or being taken advantage of, along with suggesting consumers’ belief in the benevolence of banks and billing firms.’
And she concludes: ‘I consider the adoption of online bill payment and e-bills as evidence of consumers’ trust in banks and billing firms while continuing to use paper bills is evidence of their distrust. Thus, these simultaneous users wish to take advantage of the benefits of paying bills online, while continuing to receive paper bills to manage their feelings of vulnerability when using online systems and dealing with the actions of banks and billing firms.’
‘This study suggests that providing paper bills plays a role in trust building or, if paper bills are suppressed without the consent of consumers, building distrust.’
This benefit is all about touch and what psychologists call the ‘Endowment Effect’. Here’s Carey Morewedge of Boston University and Colleen Giblin of Carnegie Mellon University talking about the Endowment Effect in 20157:
‘Owners of a good evaluate it more positively than do non-owners. Even virtually touching or imagining one owns a good is sufficient to create this mere ownership effect. It was originally assumed that ownership was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the endowment effect. Evidence has gradually accumulated suggesting that psychological ownership can create an endowment effect alone.’
Sappi (paper group) collaborated with Dr David Eagleman (Director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Laboratory for Perception & Action) to write ‘Haptic Brain’, a chapter in Sappi’s fascinating book A Communicator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Touch. They quote research8 that suggests the benefits of the Endowment Effect can also apply to printed images depicting objects.
‘The Endowment Effect is of great interest to lawmakers, economists, and communicators. It turns out the effect is so strong that you don’t have to physically own something to trigger it, a suggestion of ownership is enough to make us feel possessive. Scientific studies show that people who merely touch an object, or even imagine touching it, begin exhibiting a sense of ownership. Touching something else (like a paper catalog) that tips the psyche toward “ownership imagery” can be a cognitive surrogate for touching the object itself.’9
If you need to publish informational text, particularly if it is long, complex or the subject matter requires a degree of trust from your reader, then print may help you to communicate this information effectively.
1 Delgado, P, C Vargas, R Ackerman, L Salmerón, ‘Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension’, Educational Research Review, 25 (2018)
2 Mangen, A, ‘Textual reading on paper and screens: Implications for design’, (2017)
3 Mangen, A, G Olivier, J-L Velay, ‘Comparing Comprehension of a Long Text Read in Print Book and on Kindle: Where in the Text and When in the Story?’ Frontiers in Psychology, 10 (2019)
4 Jabr, F, ‘Why the Brain Prefers Paper’ Scientific American, 309/5 (2013)
5 Liu, Z, Paper to Digital: Documents in the Information Age, Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, (2008)
6 McNeish, J, ‘Consumer trust and distrust: retaining paper bills in online billing’, International Journal of Bank Marketing, 33/1 (2015)
7 Morewedge, C K, C E Giblin, ‘Explanations of the Endowment Effect: an Integrative Review’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19/6 (2015)
8 Peck, J, S Shu, ‘The effect of mere touch on perceived ownership’, Journal of Consumer Research, 36/3 (2009)
9 Eagleman D, Sappi Paper Group, ‘Haptic Brain’, A Communicator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Touch, (2015)
Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.
I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.