Does Paper Outweigh Digital?


Does Paper Outweigh Digital?

We know that viewing information on paper causes more emotional processing in the brain than the same information viewed on a screen (see Paper Beats Digital for Emotion), and there’s another way paper might be better: its weight. The idea comes from the same study that found that softer chairs increase negotiating flexibility.

That study, Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions, also compared the effect of the weight of a clipboard. Ackerman, Nocera and Bargh asked subjects to study a job candidate by looking at a resume placed on either light or heavy clipboards. The people who were given the heavy clipboards judged the applicants to have a more serious interest in the position than the light clipboard group.

For an in-depth discussion with one of the researchers, see John Bargh on Priming.

Weighty Words

As bizarre as this effect sounds, our language echoes it. “Heavy” is a near synonym for “serious” in some contexts (say, literature or music). The concept of “gravitas” neatly combines both elements. And our print practices reflect it as well. Documents that are designed to impress the recipient are almost always printed on heavier weight stock, and may include features like a heavy varnish coating that further add to the perception of weight.

Getting back to the paper vs. digital question, it strikes me that the weight effect could manifest itself there, too. It seems likely that a similar comparison, viewing a heavy print document vs. reading the same “weightless” text on a screen, might show the same sort of effect. If that’s true, then the print document would convey more “serious” impact than the digital version.

Until someone actually tests the paper vs. digital “weight” comparison, there are still some neuromarketing takeaways from the clipboard tests:

  1. A heavier document will create a more serious impression than a lighter one.
  2. Since tactile sensations so clearly influence our subconscious perceptions, other characteristics of a printed piece – rigidity, texture, embossing, die cuts, etc. can all have an effect.
  3. If you can’t afford a heavy printed piece, have the reader hold a brick while viewing your information. (That’s a joke, but only because handing a sales prospect a brick might seem a bit strange. The experiments show that even an unrelated tactile sensation can influence behavior.)

  1. Mary says

    I have one piece of printed collateral – my business card. It’s on a very heavy stock with ink bleeding off the edges and rounded corners for an additional tactile experience. People take my card and then “play” with it in their hands – feeling the corners and really reading the content. Emotional weight matters.

  2. mrG says

    I believe this is true of business cards as well, the heavier the stock, the more glossy and then to add embossed print is far more ‘weighty’ than even to have added a digital effect in the print that was unusual and cutting edge in its day.

    Nonetheless, I still would want to try your brick experiment; so many strange things happen every day now, for the salesman to say, “could you hold this while you read my proposal?” would probably only raise an eyebrow but then be met with complete compliance.

  3. mrG says

    For digital, however, I think there is far more at work here. There is something intrinsically worthless about digital products in the minds of humans. An experiment I have performed many times informally is to create two pictures, one of them an assemblage of cut-outs from original and magazine content, the other the identical process done in Photoshop and delivered as a printed page. The real-stuff montage is far more valued and honoured, the digital will have coffee stains on it before the week is up.

    And yet, it costs the artist a great deal more time and expensive resources to produce the Photoshop work, and the photoshop work is more precise. Working from magazine resources, both prints have the property of being “unoriginal” in the sense that the pieces are mass-production items, and the artist is the same so the aesthetics and composition are more or less equal, but the paper and glue edition is tangibly ‘art’ and gets preserved for decades, whereas the photoshop is meh

    The same is true of other artworks, a recording of digital music very often takes as much skill and training (in technology and sound physics) than the equivalent acoustic instrument, yet a badly played instrument recording is very often perceived as ‘better’ than the digially synthesized work (a synth is an oscilating crystal put through wave-modifying physics of circuits, a violin is an oscillating string put through the wave modifying physics of the wood, bow and fingers, yet we even call the electronic oscillator ‘synthetic’ knowing from high school physics that it is just as real as the cat-gut string!)

    So it is an interesting question. It’s not novelty, we’ve had electronic artworks since the 30’s and certainly electronic music since the 40’s (eg Samuel Hoffman’s Theremin with Les Baxter’s orchestra) What do you suppose presupposes us to bias against the digital-origin works?

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Thoughtful analysis, Mr. G!

    Perhaps some of the bias goes back to the “is photography art?” question. It is apparent that it takes great skill to create a Mona Lisa or David. You could give me all the art supplies in the world and I’d never come remotely close to creating a recognizable human, much less a masterpiece.

    But, since anyone can snap a picture, the artistry in creating a truly great photo is less apparent. Hence, some will dismiss an Ansel Adams landscape as “just a photo.”


  5. mrG says

    perhaps there’s some of the “anyone can do it” but then, in the workplace as at home, general users panic at the least computing task and call for someone ‘expert’ to do anything out of the mundane, and they will pay premium for photoshop skill! Also, but related to your photography observation (which we can see in any local artists’ co-op shop) it is interesting that people will pay hundreds for a lithograph but are hesitant to spend the same for a photograph; perhaps it is the weight of the word!

    I’m sure it is the same now (I haven’t used commercial software in a long time) but I know back in the 80’s when you bought software, they didn’t just sell you a floppy sealed up in shrinkwrap with the book, they sold you a nice big box full of air. It is then curious that the kids have no problems paying $60+ to buy game-console software that is just a CD or buy their music in a jewelcase or pay just as much on iTunes, although they still cling to a box mostly of air for the DVD.

  6. Marcelo F. says

    I agree and experienxe at the same time the increased experience with quality paper stuff but nowadays there are considerations like the “green perspective” of being wasting paper and killing trees together with a sense of “old fashion communication”.
    What would weight the most?

  7. Naomi Niles says

    Wasn’t it Ogilvy and Mather that had the salesperson contest last year where you had a sell a brick? That might be a good excuse to have your prospect hold a brick. 🙂

    I can see why a heavier printed piece with texture would carry more credibility. Not only is it physically heavier, but it also shows you put more care into it because it was more expensive to make.

    Several months ago my husband self-published an illustrated book. He decided to sell both ebook and printed formats. He spent extra to get better quality textured paper at an unusual size. The book is small, but we’ve definitely noticed that people tend to value the printed version more.

  8. D Garofoli says

    Yeah, but of course there´s a counterpart in all this: the pain that you suffer when you see your desk, room, cupboard, etc… invaded by tones of hard-copy papers.

  9. mrG says

    D Garofoli has it so right: have you ever had the joy of wading through the average person’s home space on their hard drive?! Egad. Yet it causes them no pain whatsoever!

  10. I would suspect that the perceptions and influences of paper are learned. (Duh?) For example, a high-end brand uses high-end paper and an archetype is born. As similar brands—that can afford to do so—do the same, the perception edges closer to reality. I’m sure none of us can begin to imagine an important contact being printed on newsprint even though the paper itself has no impact on the legalities printed on it.

    That being said, for many of us a fairly high percentage of what we consume online is bite size if not flash in the pan disposable. The brain learns this and proceeds appropriately. This is typically not the case for paper. It follows that info consumed online probably gets filed pretty close to the brain’s recycle bin. We are what we consume, eh?

    The brain is not objective. It also uses context as a reference point to add (or subtract) value from that which it is fed. Is that not Human Behavior 101?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Mark. There are really two effects here. One is the association of quality or luxury with heavier paper stock. We are exposed to that relationship all the time, and it’s undeniable. The second is the weight effect, as shown by the effect of the heavy clipboard. The mere act of holding something heavy seems to be the trigger. Certainly, these two effects can work in tandem to create an impression of importance.


  11. Walter says

    I would be interest to know what happens if one prints a brochure on the same paper has paper money.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting thought, Walter. I think it would definitely “prime” readers with money-related thoughts. See Thinking About Money. It might also add some level of gravitas to the printed piece. I’d think it would be good for marketing, say, an investment opportunity, but bad for a charitable donation request.


  12. Fashion Photographers says

    As a photographer, this is pretty cool. Printing in my industry doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to. Everyone wants to see pictures on the screen, or on the internet. I still love the feeling of really nice photopaper.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Meinie, I definitely think there’s something nice about a paper photo. It can have texture, gloss (or none) etc. And you definitely know it will be viewed as printed, unlike a Web photo that will depend on the monitor and even the angle of viewing the monitor.


  13. Holger E. Metzger says

    It is not only the tactile sensation of paper versus digital, we noticed a similar and equally impactful pehnomenon in other product segment, such as watches (
    My daughters, 8 and 5, are both bookworms, and while the younger is currently – and naturally – drawn to the half-animated “pages” of digital ipad editions of children’s stories, the older prefers to read the paper editions. She is careful to leave earmarks for where to continue the next day, and to place the book on top of the nstack beside her bed…additional behavioral “consumption” cues besides the other sensory elements that create the whole “real” book reading experience.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Very interesting info about watches, Holger. Makes a lot of sense!


  14. Greg Hart says

    I think the recent remastered release of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town is an excellent example of how this can work. Anyone can buy the remastered music along with all the new tracks through iTunes, but the package … the package is a work of art: Reproduced notebooks from the recording session with the actual spiral bind and heavy, high quality paper stock throughout. When you hold it in your hand, it makes you smile. That cannot be reproduced digitally. Perhaps the future of the ‘hard copy’ is the making of an artifact that one may feel compelled to collect in ADDITION TO a digital copy.

    It is also possible that Apple’s interfaces have been so attractive because they draw on manifestations of physical properties – the animation of turning pages, spinning dials, and registers that bounce when you scroll quickly to the end. It seems more ‘weighty’ than other digital interactions because it acts like there is weight.

  15. Christopher C Nocera says

    Hello Roger,

    Thanks for the article. This was work I began while at Yale and finished while at Harvard. Since then I have continued to develop this area of work, as well as quite a bit of additional research within the domain of nonconscious decision making.

    Having recently read your book Brain Influence, I was wondering if you had any time to talk? I had a few particular questions to ask you and would be happy to fill you in on some of the newer research I have been involved in.

    Thanks again,

    Dr. Christopher C Nocera

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’ll ping you… “Brainfluence,” btw… my own corruption of the English language.

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