BUSINESS

Buyer Beware: Students Sign Shocking Consent Form

People don't like to read a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo when they want to buy something, even if the purchase requires a signature. It's much easier to simply sign a contract, assume it contains no surprises, and move on. A recent study suggests the unwisdom of this attitude.

To quantify exactly how quickly consumers' eyes glaze over when presented with a contract, researchers rounded up 91 DePaul University undergrads who'd agreed to become research subjects as a course requirement. The students were asked to sign what was described as a cursory three-page consent form. Most students didn't bother to read the thing; 87 signed it.

Oops! Some troubling conditions lurked within the form's dry language about "informed consent." The contract committed students to "administering electric shocks to fellow participants...even if that participant screamed, cried, and asked for medical assistance. It also required participants to do push-ups." The contract forbade signees to leave the lab without the experimenter's permission.

After they signed the form, the experimenter showed the students what they'd gotten themselves into.

"Some of them laughed, some just rolled their eyes," says assistant professor Jessica Choplin, who with co-author Debra Pogrund Stark reports the findings in an article in the Spring 2009 NYU Journal of Law & Business. Public Citizen's Jeff Sovern suspects that Choplin's and Stark's findings will become "classic."

At least that's 87 people who won't be burned again signing a suspect contract, right? Oops again.

After Choplin's team tore up the bogus forms, they asked their subjects to sign an actual consent form that allowed researchers to use the data they'd gleaned in the experiment. "Of the 87 participants who signed the bogus consent form," write Choplin and Stark, "17.2% did not even look at the actual consent form, another 18.4% looked so briefly that they could not have read it, and 21.8% only skimmed enough to get a vague idea of some of the provisions."

Choplin says the students probably knew the university's internal review board would keep them safe from forced elctro-shock treatment, just like "many people in the public assume the government is going to protect them from predatory loans."

The take-home lesson for consumers, Choplin tells the Huffington Post, is this: "I would say to consumers that they should probably read contracts."