Graphology gets more wrong than write

Could your handwriting reveal the inner you? Probably not. Postscript investigates the pseudo-science

Graphology suggests an individual’s handwriting provides clues to their personality.
Graphology suggests an individual’s handwriting provides clues to their personality.
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In Grade 11, a teacher approached my desk holding a sheet of paper and proceeded to recount to me incidents from my childhood, personal secrets and aspects of my personality. She was not holding my diary, but a piece of my homework. The paper had nothing on it that said anything about me—or so I thought. To most, it was a boring report on Canadian geography; to Ms. Kong, my Grade 11 substitute teacher and a practicioner of graphology, it was a look into my inner psyche.

Graphology—the art of interpreting an individual’s handwriting to create a unique personality profile—has its origins as far back as the 17th century. Prospero Aldorisio’s 1611 manuscript Idengraphicus nuncius is considered the earliest “how-to” guide in the art of deciphering handwriting. A competing manuscript by Camilo Baldi published in 1622 was referred to at the time of its publication as “the science of the future.” Although it’s not unusual for doctors to study the handwriting of patients in an effort to diagnose or track diseases of the brain and nervous system, the analysis of personality traits and life history as revealed in one’s calligraphy is another matter entirely.

The underlying theory behind graphology is that, during the act of writing, the central nervous system controls the brain. As such, underlying elements of the writer’s psyche are theoretically revealed in the dialogue between the brain and the motor reflex muscles of the hand and these elements become apparent in the shape, size and line of the words produced on the page.

The content of the writing being studied is irrelevant. Graphologists examine the pressure of the pen on the paper, the slant of the individual letters, the angle of lines of text written on unlined paper, the shapes of letters and pen strokes and many other factors in creating individualized, hypothetical summaries of a subject’s past experiences, personal preferences and various other aspects of their personality.

The subject of much controversy amongst psychologists, graphology’s credibility rests primarily on the testimonials of individuals whose handwriting has been analyzed and correctly interpreted. Because of the circumstantial nature of this evidence, it has been widely disputed and remains in dubious psycho-analytical territory.

Dr. Cynthia Fekken, a professor in the Queen’s psychology department specializing in personality theory and assessment, said current psychological opinion of graphology finds it entirely lacking in merit, ranking it with astrology, palm reading and even the reading of tea leaves.

“There are a whole variety of studies where they’ve taken empirically validated personality questionnaires and compared them with readings of people’s handwriting, and there was very little convergence,” she said.

“There is no evidence that this is beyond what could be expected by random chance.”

Fekken said personality questionnaires, such as the popular Myers-Briggs tests, are much more reliable indicators of personality traits because the results are much easier to verify.

“Personality is commonly measured with a personality questionnaire, which needs to be two things: accurate and valid,” she said. “If you go back to handwriting analysis, there is some evidence that it can actually produce consistent or reliable responses, but it falls apart in terms of validity.”

Fekken also provided an explanation for my miraculous 11th grade experience.

“If we gave another graphologist your homework, he or she could probably come up with the same explanation,” she said, adding that though graphologists can often agree on interpretations, other psychologists often disagree with the readings.

Another possible explanation for Ms. Kong’s apparent abilities: the Barnham Effect.

“Graphology, like horoscopes, often produces interpretations so general that they can apply to 99% of people. Just like your horoscope might say, ‘This month you will have powerful interactions with the people around you,’ a graphologist might look at your writing and suggest that you generally enjoy being with people, but once in a while you like to be on your own, which is something that most people would feel,” Fekken said.

These generalizations can lead individuals to believe that they have been correctly analyzed by graphology when, realistically, they have been told something that is almost universally relatable.

Fekken said although graphologists were often able to reach a consistent interpretation, these interpretations fell apart when confronted with further

personality testing.

“People agree that small writing probably goes with introversion, and might say that large, loopy writing generally denotes an artistic or perhaps egotistical person,” she said.

“But when you take it to the next step, you get no evidence of validity that is in any way meaningful.”

Fekken said the most puzzling aspect of graphology is its continued following regardless of its condemnation by the psychology community at large.

“If you go into the formal psychological literature, there are about 400 or 500 articles that talk about the invalidity of graphology. And the interesting thing is, why do people persist in believing it, when there is no scientific evidence for it?”

One explanation may be semantic similarities, Fekken said.

“The language you use to describe personalities overlaps in the way you can describe handwriting. So the connection can be naively made between artistic handwriting and an artistic personality,” she said. “Also, because handwriting is something we produce, there is the assumption that the brain that is responsible for your personality traits is creating this handwriting which will somehow reflect those traits.”

Regardless of psychologists’ qualms, graphology is currently offered as a diploma program at many institutions of higher learning, including a recent course pioneered at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Fekken said she did not believe graphology would catch on or be recognized as a legitimate form of personality assessment within the psychological community.

“In the last 40 to 50 years, the best method has become ‘Just Ask’. If I want to know if you’re extroverted, I could read you my definition of extroversion and ask if you felt it applied to your own personality,” she said.

“What you’re looking for is this notion of convergence, where pieces of the personality puzzle fit together.”

Try your hand at graphology

Become your own graphologist by examining these aspects of your handwriting:

Slant

•Right slant indicates a response to communication, but not how it takes place. For example, the writer may wish to be friendly, manipulative, intrusive, etc. but not communicate in that way.

•If the handwriting is generally upright, this indicates independence.

•A left slant tendency shows emotion and reserve. This writer needs to be true to self first and foremost, and can be resentful if others try to push them outside of their comfort zones.

Size

•Large handwriting can mean extroversion and an outgoing personality, or it can mean that the writer puts on an act of confidence, although this behaviour might not be exhibited to strangers.

•Smaller writing logically means the opposite of large writing. It can also indicate a thinker and an academically inclined mind, depending upon other features of the script.

•If the writing is small and delicate, the writer is unlikely to be a good communicator with anyone other than those on their own particular wavelength. These people do not generally find it easy to break new ground socially.

Pressure

•Heavy pressure indicates commitment and taking things seriously, but if the pressure is excessively heavy, it can mean that the writer gets very uptight at times and can react quickly to what they percieve as criticism or insult, even where none was intended. These writers act first and ask questions later.

•Light pressure shows sensitivity to atmosphere and empathy towards others.

•Someone who writes with uneven pressure might be flighty, or missing direction in their life.

—Source: about.com

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