All About Graphology
Can handwriting analysis really tell us about the personality and aptitudes of the writer?
by Brian Dunning
Filed under General Science
May 21, 2013
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Also available in Russian
By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 363, May 21, 2013
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.
No evidence was found for the validity of the graphological signs.
Thus the results did not support the claim that the three handwriting measures were valid indices of extroversion.
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.
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.
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.
© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
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. 1 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4363>