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Writing Increases Commitment

When we write something down, especially longhand, then we’re more committed to it. Writing compared to, for example, thinking or talking about something increases our commitment to the idea and to taking action.

Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard (Deutsch 1955) asked people to estimate the length of some lines drawn on a piece of paper. They were looking at the effect that others’ opinions might have on decision making. They had other people, who were part of the experiment, purposely estimate the length of the lines incorrectly.

Would the participants in the experiment go along with the incorrect estimates they were hearing from others, or would they stick (commit) to the answer they felt was correct?

What they found was that people would change their estimate of the line lengths based on what the other people in the room estimated. This goes along with the idea of social validation that we talk about in Chapter 2, “The Need To Belong.”

But Deutsch and Gerard also looked at whether there were situations in which commitment to a decision would be stronger than in other situations. Before hearing what others had to say on the length of the line:

  • Group 1 wrote their estimates on paper. They were told not to sign the paper, and that they would not be turning in the sheets of paper.
  • Group 2 wrote their estimates on a “magic pad,” and then lifted a sheet and the estimate was erased without anyone seeing it.
  • Group 3 was told to write their estimates on paper and to sign the paper. They were told that their papers would be collected at the end of the experiment.

Did the groups vary in terms of how strongly they stuck to their commitment of the length of the line?

Group 2 was most likely to change their decisions and to give incorrect estimates. Groups 1 and 3 were both five times less likely to change their answers. They were more committed to their original estimates, regardless of what they heard others say.

Signing their names or being told they were going to hand in their estimates did not seem to make a difference. Just the act of writing it on something relatively permanent was enough to make them commit.

Writing Longhand Changes the Brain

When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in graduate school, my first draft was done by hand (OK, now I’ve admitted that I’m quite old!). Most writing these days is done by typing on a keyboard. I’m writing this book on my laptop, and most of my communication with friends and family is done via emails that I, of course, compose at my laptop keyboard. There are still a few things I write by hand—my most important daily to-do lists are done by hand, as well as most of my business planning. It’s interesting, when you stop to think about it, which things you write by hand versus on a keyboard. But does it matter?

Research by Reza Shadmehr and Henry Holcomb (Shadmehr 1997) looked at brain activity when people wrote longhand (for example, with a pen or pencil) as opposed to typing on a keyboard. Writing involves different muscles than typing, and Shadmehr and Holcomb found that there was more memory consolidation when people were writing in longhand.

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