All About Graphology

Can handwriting analysis really tell us about the personality and aptitudes of the writer?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid #363
May 21, 2013
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Also available in Russian
 

Today we're going to take pen in hand and write a short passage, and then have the handwriting analyzed by an expert. Is it true that useful information about our personalities or lives can be divined through a study of our handwriting? Can the strength of our loops, the spaces between words, and the crossed Ts and dotted Is actually reveal our intentions or thoughts? Some refer to it as a science and make important business, life, or legal decisions based upon it; others regard it as a pseudoscience and dismiss its utility. Let's see what the light of science will reveal when we shine it upon graphology.

The first thing to understand is that there are three basic types of handwriting analysis, and it's crucial to be clear on which one we're talking about today. The first is used in the medical profession, usually in neurology, to help diagnose conditions like Parkinson's disease in which motor function is affected and fine skills like handwriting will degrade. This is perfectly legitimate as an aid to diagnosis in some cases. The second type is forensic document analysis, also known as graphonomy, which seeks to establish the authenticity of documents or autographs. This can include not only chemical analysis of the paper and ink, but often comes down to comparing certain metrics of the handwriting between a known sample and a test sample to see if they were written by the same person. It's important to note that a graphonomer would never make a conclusion about the personality of the writer; as that is purely the realm of the third type of handwriting analysis: graphology. Graphology is the practice of determining personality traits, skills, aptitudes, or even fortunes, through the study of an individual's handwriting.

Skeptical evaluation of graphology has historically found that it is in the same classification as astrology or palm reading. It's generally described as purely unscientific, little differentiated from a psychic reading, and that any correct statements depend on lucky guesses or the reading of other cues from the subject, such as the content of the writing or the appearance and behavior of the subject, if they are present during the analysis. In short, the science-based assessment of graphology is overwhelmingly negative.

Let's look at a brief history. Ideas related to graphology have been around for centuries and perhaps longer, but it was only in 1871 when the French archaeologist and former priest Jean-Hippolyte Michon coined the term and published the first formal description. The book was Le Journal de l'Autographe (Journal of the Autograph), and graphology has remained popular in France ever since, where it's generally regarded as sound science. But its broader introduction to the rest of the world had a surprising source, a German group of pagan mystics called the Munich Cosmic Circle, active around 1900. Three of this group, sculptor Hans Busse, psychiatrist Georg Meyer, and particularly the philosopher Ludwig Klages had formed the Deutsche Graphologische Gesellschaft (German Graphology Association) about twenty years after Michon's book, and Klages continued publishing on graphology until about 1950. Klages is described by some followers as the father of modern graphology. Klages' particular brand looked and quacked like psychological science, but its foundation was closely linked to Klages' ideas on anthropology and the rejection of major religions. He was also notoriously anti-Semitic. In summary, graphology was, to Klages, an indicator of whether a person was properly grounded in proper Germanic paganism. Read whatever else between those lines that you will.

However, the majority of today's professional graphologists have little connection to racism or the occult and consider their practice to be rooted in sound science. Professional associations exist in most countries, providing the trappings of legitimacy. A popular saying in the profession is "Handwriting is actually brainwriting," which makes a certain amount of sense; the movements of the hand are obviously controlled by the brain, and the brain is where personality characteristics reside. But throughout the latter half of the twentieth century as the sciences of psychology and neuroscience have begun to mature and grow, we've learned that the linking of such connections in the brain are not necessarily valid. Your skill at throwing a baseball does not necessarily affect your preferred musical genre; and by the same logic, nor should your personality affect your style of handwriting. I can only write in all caps, and graphology holds that it's because I'm secretly trying to hide who I am. In fact, the reason is as simple as I grew up writing comic books and was going for the traditional font, and it's just what my hands became accustomed to.

Such failings of handwriting analysis have come under closer scrutiny as it's become more prominent in business and the courtroom, especially in France and Israel. In fact, surveys have found that between 70 and 91 percent of companies in France use some form of handwriting analysis in hiring decisions, and about 5000 companies do so in the United States. Complicating the prevalence of so many graphologists in those countries is that there are so many competing associations and societies, with little standardization of the techniques. Two graphologists from different schools are likely to give completely different readings on the same subject, and so science has attempted to clear the air by putting graphology to the test. The results have not been encouraging for those who practice.

In his book The Write Stuff, Dr. Barry Beyerstein summarized the work of Dr. Geoffrey Dean, who performed probably the most extensive literature survey of graphology ever done. Dean did a meta-analysis on some 200 studies:

Dean showed that graphologists have failed unequivocally to demonstrate the validity or reliability of their art for predicting work performance, aptitudes, or personality. Graphology thus fails according to the standards a genuine psychological test must pass before it can ethically be released for use on an unsuspecting public.

Dean found that no particular school of graphology fared better than any other... In fact, no graphologist of any stripe was able to show reliably better performance than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials. In the vast majority of studies, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

Note some of the specific conclusions. From 1976:

It was concluded that the analyst could not accurately predict personality from handwriting.

From 1977:

No evidence was found for the validity of the graphological signs.

From 1978:

Thus the results did not support the claim that the three handwriting measures were valid indices of extroversion.

From 1983:

Although the literature on the topic suffers from significant methodological negligence, the general trend of findings is to suggest that graphology is not a viable assessment method.

From 1986:

There is thus little support here for the validity of graphological analysis.

Also from 1986:

The graphologists did not perform significantly better than a chance model.

That neither amateurs nor graphologists are able to reliably beat chance is not surprising, assuming the test is given under controlled conditions. But remove those controls, such as when a graphologist is practicing on their own, and suddenly convincing-sounding results can appear. Just listen to what French graphologist Catharine Bottiau told BBC News in 2013:

Normally we are consulted once the client has already drawn up a shortlist of candidates. Then the candidates will be asked to write a motivational letter, using their own handwriting. We will examine the letters, and offer our advice. Usually this will tend to confirm the impressions already gleaned from interviews, the CV, personality tests and so on.

Clearly, giving a graphologist a motivational letter written by the subject hardly blinds the graphologist to the subject's personality. Any of us could make perfectly reasonable observations about the author of any short motivational letter, whether it was written or typed. The letter itself gives so much information that the graphology is merely ornamental.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

If this sounds a lot like other forms of divining, such as astrology or psychic readings, it should. Noted archaeologist Ken Feder once wrote into a newspaper to criticize their promotion of the technique. In response, a graphologist offered him a free reading over the phone, hoping to turn him into a believer. Feder sent her a handwriting sample and then described the experience:

What followed was a perfect example of a cold reading. She said she would do all the talking and that I could comment on her analysis when she was finished, but this was not what happened. She continually stopped and asked how she was doing and requested me to provide feedback. Consciously or not, she did what most good cold-readers do: She said things that were very flattering — I was highly intelligent, sensuous, and artistic. She made statements that were absolutely correct because they could not have been wrong about anybody: She said I was inhibited in some areas and uninhibited in others; outgoing, but I don't always let people get close to me; I had a secretive side to me. I enjoyed music, art, acting. She called me analytical. I was impulsive, but I often hold back. I have highs and lows, she said.

If you're wondering who Ken Feder is, he's that guy who has highs and lows, and enjoys music.

However it may be that the reason handwriting analysis is forever doomed to failure isn't even that it's always been proven to be useless, but rather a logical snag with its very core concept. At the 1988 CSICOP conference, Robert Basil (then a PhD candidate) asked Dr. Beyerstein whether the real problem wasn't the fact that graphology is trying to quantify something that's not quantifiable. The good doctor answered:

"Trying to define somebody's personality is a fool's errand. Many psychologists seriously doubt whether there is an 'inner core' of fixed and immutable characteristics in the human mind." Which leaves us with the obvious question: As the notion of "personality" as an inherent human trait becomes more difficult to sustain, will there be anything there for graphology to measure once the field gets its act together?

Other divining techniques like iridology, phrenology, palmistry, and astrology also have differing schools of thought, require years of training, offer expensive certifications, and fail just as soundly when put to a scientific controlled test. Handwriting analysis does have its plausible-sounding separation from those other techniques though, and that's the whole "handwriting is brainwriting" idea — traits from the brain will be manifested in the way that it controls the muscles of the hand. Unfortunately, this is just as unscientific as the others. No amount of sciencey sounding language can make up for a technique failing when put to a scientifically controlled test.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Basil, R. "Graphology and Personality: Let the Buyer Beware." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Apr. 1989, Volume 13, Number 3: 241-243.

Beyerstein, B., Beyerstein, D. The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology, the Study of Handwriting Analysis. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1992.

Feder, K. "The Cold Reading of Writing." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 1987, Volume 11, Number 4: 346-348.

Furnham, A. "Write and Wrong: The Validity Of Graphological Analysis." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Oct. 1988, Volume 13, Number 1: 64-69.

Schofield, H. "A French love affair... with graphology." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 28 Apr. 2013. Web. 14 May. 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22198554>

Stollznow, K. "Graphology: Write or Wrong?" The Skeptic. 1 Oct. 2003, Volume 23, Number 3: 46-50.

Tripician, R. "Confessions of a (Former) Graphologist." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 2000, Volume 24, Number 1: 44-47.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "All About Graphology." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 May 2013. Web. 30 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4363>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 46 comments

Love this one. I have Multiple Sclerosis. Based on the location of my lesion load, it's generally my dominant (right) side that's affected, be that my gait, my vision, or fine motor control with my right hand. This is most noticeable when eating, brushing teeth, getting dressed or... writing.

I have relapsing-remitting MS, meaning these manifestations for the most part are temporary. Seeing samples of my 'mid-relapse' versus 'baseline' handwriting it's difficult to imagine it being assumed to come from the same person. In fact, I've two signature samples on file with my bank as per their protocol when someone's signature changes (amputation, stroke, etc). And I promise my personality doesn't change along with it!

(Anecdote, I realise. But it does mean this episode especially piqued my interest. Thanks Brian!)

Kathryn, Dublin
May 24, 2013 3:18am

Love your podcast Brian, one of your explanations did strike me as interesting in this one though.

You mention that graphologists say people writing in all caps are trying to 'hide their identity'. You say it's because you grew up writing comics.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but as a comic lover I seem to remember hidden identities are a common trope in several mainstream comics. Not trying to call you out or anything, but I think an interesting angle you kind of overlooked here is the power of fonts and style to influence the readers perception as well as possibly informing us on the character of the writer. Ask any graphic designer who has had to pick an appropriate font for a logo or book cover.

keep up the great work!

Carl, LA
May 25, 2013 12:47pm

Carl, I have this thing for blank stationery. I love having many unused writing pads and record books around me.

I think that if I had identity issues, (Mud, Moral Dolphin, Magnanamous Dinoflagellate) I'd simply be called superman.

Didnt he have some doozies late eighties early nineties?!

Pens, pens, I loove loopy pens of all different colours. My two student kids have similar collections for their subject journals.

Maybe its genetic.

Note that risk taking drivers are completely genetic..Their parents didnt use birth control

Moral Dolphin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
May 26, 2013 5:08pm

@Carl
As far as I know, comic books are lettered with upper case letters because they layout more consistently that way. Writing in all capital letters means your letters are all going to be roughly the same height making for nice even lines, while lower case letters are sometimes tall (h or b) sometimes short (c or e) and sometimes run under the line (y or g). And while superhero comics are popular, there are a huge number of comics that don't deal with guys in masks and tights but which also use capital letters out of practicality (there's probably a page or two in your local newspaper).

Ash, Canada
May 27, 2013 8:26pm

Max, I dont know what you are reacting to.

I'll put it more strongly, I have no idea what you are reacting to.

Correlations can be used to indicate something. False correlations are hopefully discounted.

The Digit article from Nature was not an article, it was a brief communication and its further discussed in subsequent journal publictions.

Have you had a chance to read these yet?

If anything, I might get people here to look up papers and then subsequent articles.

Ps To anyone who gets the Journal hunt bug;

When you do get the hang of looking at trends in literature, please dont post them as lookey sees.

Its far too often that we see.."Look at this paper" only to find the poster has reposted from a self interest site.

and/or.. never read the paper before posting/replying

Poster check? Sure, highlight the quoted paper and paste it into the search bar. The font or the referencing technique is sometimes indicative of the site it was filched.

Moral Dolphin Back in Mud Suit, Greenacres by the sea Oz
May 28, 2013 3:21am

About numbers. It's really hard to know the truth. The Syndicat européen des graphologues professionnels (SEGP) admits that graphology is on the decline but Corine Blanc its president claims that 70% of companies hiring today in France. But that number is now 50% to 60% according to the same source, Corine Blanc in a 2013 article. In short, we're only relying on quacks to estimate the relevance of their trade here.

The problem is that the famous requirement of a "lettre manuscripte" is gone from job adverts today and that companies that hire don't do those tests, those are done by recruitment cabinets.

Why isn't graphology used in France like it once was:

There is less need for graphology or astrology and other quackery because the laws have changed.

The original pressure is gone, those desperate tests were in answer to tough French employment laws where a permanent employee had a 3 months trial period before the employement contract was definite and hard to break. Now it's 4 + 3 months = 7 months of trial for a new employee (like it happened to me).

Graphology is not a legal reason to fire/no hire as it's officially recognized not to have any scientific validity in French courts.

So it may simply be that in 2013 graphology is gone even where it was once used. It's even less relevant that we'd like to think.

http://www.lenouveleconomiste.fr/lesdossiers/evaluation-graphologique-9844/#.UaZOgs5_Kk0

Denis Solaro, Nice, France
May 29, 2013 12:13pm

Back in the day of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, a reasonable case was made by the character Henry Higgins that a flower girl's accent revealed her breeding, and determined her opportunities. Of course, that was before mass media. I wonder if there was a time when handwriting style was as revealing as one's habits of pronunciation. Did it reflect class, as reliably as the dropped H's of Cockney accent, or the ability to speak about the rain in Spain falling mainly in the plain? I now accept the science in this article, but I have relied upon graphology in picking a jury when I was a criminal defense attorney. (I also had a lucky pocket knife.) In any event, in my non-scientific experience, I had some remarkable results. One example sticks in my mind. A woman, whom the graphologist never saw, was described on the basis of her signature as having a sense of humor. Since I use humor a lot in my communications this was important to me. Nobody would have predicted that this woman with a tight bun and a weathered stern face had a sense of humor. But as the trial progressed, she was most responsive to my humor of all the jurors. The judge was least responsive, but my client had the last laugh.

Mitch, Anchorage
May 30, 2013 12:22am

Was she writing funny cheques Mitch?

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 2, 2013 8:46pm

While I don't have MS like Kathryn, I my handwriting has also been dictated by a medical condition and not by any kind of personality trait. My entire time in school I had an occupational therapist helping me with my handwriting to become more legible, consistent, and straight.

While it is in a legible manner today, and has something of a consistent appearance, it is far from the neat and tidy look to be desired.

While there's only been two or three times my handwriting has been looked at by graphologists, they have never been correct.

Ford, Conor, Poway California
June 7, 2013 9:21pm

"Brian, you write like a doctor...."
BARBARA NECKER, Norwich, NY
May 21, 2013 10:25am

You should see MY doctor's writing when he writes prescriptions, or answers the "essay questions" on insurance forms!

It might as well be in Sinhalese or Tamil!

Should I be worried enough about him to have it analyzed.......?

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
January 24, 2014 11:24am

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