Handwriting Analysis: Science or Snow Job?

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.

And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.

I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.

But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)

Some Clarifications Up Front

When approaching the subject of graphology, it’s important to realize that the phrase “handwriting analysis” is sometimes used to refer to an expert document examiner’s comparison of a person’s handwriting with writing introduced as evidence in a civil or criminal trial. In such cases, the analyst (often called a “questioned document examiner”) is simply comparing details in one sample of handwriting with those in another and rendering his or her judgment about whether both were produced by the same person. Such expertise has nothing to do with graphology, the assertion that people’s character traits are discernable in their handwriting.

A second important point to keep in mind when investigating graphology, at least as it is embraced by most people today, is that it is presented as a scientific discipline. There are those who claim a mystical ability to divine personality and facts about individuals from their handwriting, just as there are people who claim to be able to do the same from facial birthmarks or palm creases or tarot cards. Some of those methods, depending on how they are used, may be halachically forbidden, although there have been Jewish mystics who, it is claimed, could “read” a person from his face or his writing. Whatever the merits of such claims, though, graphology’s contemporary promoters do not claim any such supernatural divination. What they say they do, rather, is a form of scientific analysis, the interpretation of handwriting quirks and patterns, based on what they claim to be a cause-and-effect premise, to yield subjects’ psychological, occupational, and even medical attributes.

A Little History

The earliest use of handwriting as a window into the mind may go back to the Roman emperor Nero, who is said to have judged people by their writing. The first written treatise on graphology is generally considered to have been produced in 1625 by an Italian named Camillo Baldi. In the nineteenth century, members of the Catholic clergy in France founded “The Society of Graphology” and one of them, Abbot Jean-Hyppolyte Michon, wrote several books on the topic. Within a hundred years, German thinkers had embraced the idea that state of mind affects handwriting; and Americans soon followed, with the establishment by a Kansas shorthand teacher of the International Graphoanalysis Society in 1929. (“Graphoanalysis” refers to one of a number of different schools of graphological methodology, which all differ in their assignment of meanings to certain writing patterns.)

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that experimental claims of graphology’s validity as a psychological tool were put forth, and its popularity began to soar both in America and Europe.

Method in the Manuscript

Although, as noted earlier, there is no canonical school of graphology, but rather an assortment of schools that each claim a particular technique of ferreting details of a mind from the writing that it has produced, most graphologists pay particular attention to the size and slant of characters, their curvature, and things like the pressure of upward and downward strokes. A right slant generally correlates with extroversion, and a left slant with introversion. The shape of the letter ‘t’ and the way it is crossed are important markers in most systems, as are the size of the personal pronoun “I” and the way it is rendered. Anyone interested in the finer points of the methodology used by the various approaches within graphology can choose from dozens of books and papers outlining the details of all the various systems.

Sifting Through the Studies

The intricacy of the systems utilized by graphologists is clear, as is the popularity of graphology itself. But is it justified? Have the claims made on its behalf been borne out by facts? Has handwriting analysis been proven to be a useful tool? The answers are clearer than one might expect, and—at least to some—may be surprising.

There have been literally hundreds of studies aimed at finding evidence for graphologists’ claims. The ones that have demonstrated efficacy on any level for handwriting analysis have been those conducted by graphologists themselves, or have appeared in journals where payment is rendered for the inclusion of papers. Objective studies in recognized professional scientific periodicals have yielded no evidence that personality traits can be reliably divined from handwriting.

Anat Rafaeli and Richard J. Klimoski, for example, studied expert graphologists’ interpretation of the handwriting of 104 real estate agents in 1983 and compared the assessments with the agents’ performance. No relationship was found. In a 1992 survey of research on handwriting analysis for personnel selection, Mr. Klimoski concluded that the “credible, empirical evidence” does not support the claims of graphology as applied to personnel selection.

In 2009, Carla Dazzi and Luigi Pedrabissi published a paper in Psychological Reports on a study they conducted about graphology and summarized their findings thus: “No evidence was found to validate the graphological method as a measure of personality.”

Even one of the very few studies that yielded a slightly greater correct/incorrect ratio in the judgments of graphologists over a control group—a 1973 paper for the Netherlands Society of Industrial Psychology—provides little succor for proponents of handwriting analysis. The Dutch researchers concluded that for judging an individual, “…graphology is a diagnostic method of highly questionable and in all probability minimal, practical value.”

More enlightening are the results of “meta-analyses” of studies on the issue. A meta-analysis is essentially an evaluation of a group of studies, which—since the weaknesses of individual studies are diluted in the pool of others considered—yields a clearer and more accurate picture.

In one such meta-analysis of 17 graphology studies in 1988, Efrat Neter and Gershon Ben-Shakhar found that graphologists were no better than nongraphologists in predicting future performance by examining an applicant’s handwriting. The researchers concluded that in cases where “neutral scripts” (writing samples whose content did not reveal anything about the writers’ lives, attitudes or interests) were used “the validities of the graphologists were near zero.” Their results, they wrote, suggested that the source of whatever “limited validity” may have been demonstrated for graphologists’ appraisals “may be the script’s content”—in other words, the content of the writing sample, not the handwriting itself.

In 1992, Australian researcher Geoffrey Dean published, in the journal of the American Psychological Association, a review of 200 studies of graphology’s efficacy. He found that no graphologist of any of the schools of handwriting analysis fared better than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials presented to the graphologists. In the vast majority of the studies surveyed, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

The late professor of psychology Barry L. Beyerstein was a particularly blunt critic of graphology, calling it “scandalous that a pseudoscientific ‘character reading’” like handwriting analysis “should be used to make decisions that can seriously affect people’s reputations and life prospects.”

“The scientific literature,” he said, “overwhelmingly supports the notion that handwriting analysis is pseudoscientific bunk.”

The Handwriting Analysts’ Response

What do graphologists say when confronted with such comments and the results of studies finding no validity to their claims?

To answer that question, I interacted with accomplished handwriting analysts. They don’t dispute the fact of the scientific findings but insist that the studies are flawed. Some will point in the direction of their own, or other graphologists’, studies. Others claim that if handwriting analysis were unreliable, courts would not employ it. But I could find no evidence that any court of law in the United States has ever relied in any way on graphology (although, again, comparisons of handwriting samples to identify writers is commonplace in courts).

And some say, in effect, leave the studies aside; look instead at the facts—namely the convictions of their clients, who claim that analyses of their handwriting (or that of others that they have submitted) have been accurate, even astoundingly perceptive.

When such claims are examined, though, they tend to lose some luster. In many cases, the accuracy of the readings can plausibly be tied to the content of the written questions or writing sample submitted. The graphologist need not have consciously intended to mine that content but may nevertheless have registered elements of it in his mind, which later emerge in his evaluation. In cases of public figures, the evidence of reputations often seems to inform (again, consciously or not) analyses of their handwriting.

An example would be one graphologist’s analysis of presidential candidates’ handwriting before the 2008 elections. He concluded that Senator John McCain has an “optimistic nature” and also “a restless inner temperament, with elements of impulsivity and impatience. He can blow up in an instant… prefers to defend the given order and is stubborn, determined and unyielding in his approach to life.”

And, the analyst added, the senator is a “maverick.” All of which is common knowledge.

As to then-Senator Barack Obama, an analyst said that he “needs to always be the center of attention,” has a “seemingly informal style” and “has overcompensated for an absent father and a overbearing mother and grandmother.” (The same handwriting expert also saw in Mr. Obama’s writing “a Christian cross and the alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet… hinting at the crescent, the symbol of Islam.”)

And, in consonance with popular opinion at the time, he added on a radio program that “Barack’s signature scared the daylights out of me.”

Or/But/While

In other cases, vagueness and what might be called “or/but/while” statements allow people to see perception where in fact there may be none.

Examples of vague, open-to-many-meanings, or universally applicable phrases include things like: “divided nature,” “compatible with most people,” “protects innermost feelings,” “strives for independence,” “always asking questions and seeking answers,” and “sense of pride and dignity”—all actual phrases culled from random published analyses of handwriting samples. At first glance each phrase might seem to communicate something clear and discrete; but a second look and bit of thought yields the realization that each phrase is sufficiently vague to apply to almost anyone. Or consider (also from an actual analysis) the following: “Had trouble with parents in teens.” The inherent vagueness of the word “trouble” and the essential psychology of adolescence combine to make such an assessment more of a truism than a revelation.

Someone, however, predisposed to seeing himself in a graphological analysis would readily feel, about any or all of the phrases above, that the graphologist has indeed divined elements of his personality.

“Or/but/while” statements also abound in most graphoanalyses. Those would be things like the following (also culled from random actual readings): “has an opinion… [either] because he has character, or because he is arrogant”; “can be compatible with most personalities but will not hesitate to argue her point of view”; “charming in social situations while remaining socially distant”; “take[s] great pains to be impartial… [but] can be contentious, argumentative”; “takes [money] seriously but doesn’t allow financial concerns to consume him.”

The upshot of “or/but/while ” statements is that the subject can choose to focus either on what precedes the “or,” “but” or “while,” or on what follows it. If he’s inclined to want to believe his character has been plumbed, he’ll likely zero in on the description he feels suits him best.

A Case Study

The more daring graphologists, however, do indeed include, at least inter alia, clear assessments in their analyses of handwriting samples, descriptions of character traits that are neither vague nor qualified. It would seem that evidence for graphology’s effectiveness would assert itself in such judgments.

“Moshe,” who is something of a public figure, challenged a respected graphologist to provide scientific evidence for the efficacy of handwriting analysis. The handwriting professional told him that the fact that people found analyses of their handwriting to be accurate descriptions of themselves is the only evidence needed. And he offered to analyze Moshe’s handwriting. Moshe confided to me that he took up the offer but, to make the experiment a truly “blind” (unbiased, scientific) one, he submitted instead the handwriting of someone else—“Tzipporah”—whose character traits are markedly different from his. He is analytical, philosophical, lawyerly, and gregarious; she is intelligent but emotive, quiet, and unpretentious. While he is systematic, very organized and calculated, she has more of a “go with the flow” personality. He is very self-assured; she is modest and reserved.

The following are Moshe’s words, after receiving the detailed analysis of “his” (actually, Tzipporah’s) handwriting:

Most of the analysis reflected things about me that are easily available on the web. And those things are simply not true about [Tzippora].

Other parts of the analysis are open to broad interpretation, and in some cases even contradictory. For example, it claims the writer is ‘not meticulous about details’ and ‘given to procrastination’ but in the very next paragraph says he is “organized, with good planning skills” and, earlier, that he ‘pushes himself’ and “rarely allow[s] obstacles to deter him.”

And where the analysis does state clear “facts,” they are generally without basis—either regarding me or “Tzippora.” Neither of our fathers were delinquent in establishing “clear direction” in life. Neither of us has “past experiences [that] have created aggressive feelings.” Neither of us had unusual “trouble with parents” in our youths, and certainly don’t “blame” ourselves for that nonexistent trouble. There is much more, too, that is wildly inaccurate about both “Tzipporah” and me.

The graphologist didn’t even indicate that the writing was that of a female, not a male like me.

Moshe does not believe that the handwriting analyst consciously sought to fool him. He thinks the graphologist actually believes in his ability to see character traits in handwriting. “But,” says Moshe, “he is wrong. He somewhat described things fairly well known about me—even though it wasn’t my handwriting he analyzed—and totally struck out when he tried to go further.”

Where There’s A Will…

There will always be people who want to believe that they can obtain insight into themselves through various means. Whether they pursue a psychotherapist or a soothsayer, their goal is the same: to better understand themselves and, hopefully, better utilize their strengths, address their weaknesses and, live better lives. And so it might well be asked what gain is to be had by presenting handwriting analysis in its true colors—something bearing the patina of “science” but lacking any evidence for its validity. After all, even if it is just a parlor game, where’s the harm in playing it?

The answer lies in the stark fact that many who seek analyses of their (or others’) handwriting actually make life-altering decisions based on what they are told. A potential marriage partner may be nixed, or a job not offered. One graphologist told me that his skills resulted in a student being revealed as guilty of a crime committed in his yeshiva. He claimed that the student subsequently admitted his guilt. But there have been many cases of admissions of guilt under pressure that turned out—on the basis of hard evidence or eyewitnesses that emerged only later—to be false. A handwriting analysis can itself be a crime, and not a victimless one.

There are, however, effective ways to receive accurate and truthful information about one’s character, strengths, and weaknesses; and to obtain useful advice for how to make life-choices. For a believing Jew, the path to such good advice has been clearly pointed out by Chazal, in Avos (1:6): “Choose for yourself a rav,” the Sages advised, “and acquire for yourself a friend.”

And when you need personal guidance, turn to them.

This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine. Reprinted by permission.

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