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ALL CAPS in legal documents – superstitious? [study]

When consumers come across vast swathes of legal text presented in ALL CAPS (example) , do they pay more attention to it?

An old anecdote tells of Niels Bohr, the Nobel-winning physicist, whose door was adorned by a horseshoe. When asked by an incredulous guest whether he believed in such superstition, Bohr replied that “I’ve been told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

Bohr’s quote is cited in a November 2020 paper from the University of Alabama School of Law, in which Professor Yonathan Arbel and Assistant Professor Andrew Toler examine the wisdom (or otherwise) of using blocks of ALL CAPS in legal documents.

This study explores the common practice of using all-caps in consumer contracts and finds that the belief in their power borders on the superstitious. Courts and legislators endorse this practice as a means of improving consumer consent, given the lack of attention consumers pay to the fine print. In reality, however, all-caps relies on no empirical support and the evidence produced here suggests that all-caps is actively harmful to older readers. The fact that all-caps is so widespread suggests that the stakes of this superstition are significant even for those who do not believe in it. In myriad cases, courts have been enforcing terms against consumers which they erroneously thought consumers notice and understand.

See: ALL-CAPS in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies,Volume 17, Issue 4. A (full) draft copy of which may be found here via U of Alabama Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3519630

Research research by Martin Gardiner

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