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Posted by on Nov 3, 2013 in Pseudoscience, Psychology, Science, Teaching | 18 comments

Mirror, Mirror—The Handwriting’s on the Wall

This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.

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Mirror, Mirror—The Handwriting’s on the Wall by Ivy Brown

Since 384 BCE when Socrates said, “I can tell a man by his hand,” people have been trying to find meaning in handwriting.  Graphology is the allegedly scientific practice of determining people’s psychological, social, occupational, and medical attributes from the configuration of their letters, lines, and paragraphs on a page.  Though this definition changes depending on who’s doing the defining, the fundamental meaning is the same.  But does our subconscious really reveal our personalities through handwriting? (For those who think this is a serious question, rather than rhetorical, you’re in the wrong place. Move along. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.)

According to Barry Beyerstein, Ph. D., an experimental and biological psychologist, graphology belongs in the same category as phrenology (using the shape of the skull to determine  personality characteristics) and physiognomy (judging character through body and facial features).  He said

Graphology is a pseudoscience that claims to be a quick and easy way of saying how someone’s wired, but there’s no evidence that this is encoded in handwriting.

The British Psychological Society has ranked graphology alongside astrology, finding them both to have zero validity.  Dr. Rowan Bayne, a psychology professor and researcher, has conducted many experiments on graphology using tests approved by graphologists prior to their performance and has reached the conclusion that the practice is “useless… absolutely hopeless.”  He says graphology’s appeal to the public is “very seductive because at a very crude level someone who is neat and well-behaved tends to have neat handwriting.”

Who Uses Graphology?
There are many so called “expert” graphologists hired by companies to assist in the hiring process.  It is estimated that between 5% and 10% of businesses in both the US and the UK rely on graphology when considering new employees.  It is difficult to know exactly how many businesses are currently using a graphologist because many won’t fess up to keeping one on staff, whether it be for reasons of embarrassment or legal implications. We’ve all been suspicious at times that HR is somewhat full of it in its hiring processes, but I don’t think any of us has ever suspected that HR would resort to basing its decisions on activities less meaningful and much more suspect than flipping a coin. Congratulations, new hire. Your flowing “W” landed you the job. To be honest, I think I’d rather be hired on the basis of cup size.

But let’s forget about the working world. Let’s talk about the truly desperate: lonely people who rely on matchmakers and bad advice, instead of alcohol and desperation, to get them laid. Karen Stollznow, a researcher with a Ph. D. in linguistics, conducted a field study to determine the compatibility of her and her boyfriend.  The graphologist made vague references to personality traits, determined they were a happy couple, and said they would marry one day, provided they sort out a few minor relationship problems.  But wait a moment: both of the writing samples were Stollznow’s. Couldn’t this so-called expert tell that the same woman had written both samples? With evidence such as this, it’s a wonder that Stollznow hasn’t kicked her beau to the curb and gazed longlingly into her own reflection for hours on end, murmuring “Mirror, mirror—who has the prettiest handwriting on the wall?”

And probably the most controversial use of graphology comes from the medical field.  Kathi McKnight, featured on the Dr. Oz show, claims to be able to identify whether a person has health problems such as tremors, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, and mental illness, such as depression and schizophrenia.  Who’s behind that curtain, Oz? Whoever it is needs to bathe because I think I smell horse manure of the usual color.

But That’s Not Who I Want to Be
For those who have their handwriting analyzed and are horrified with the personality caricatures that graphologists pull out their magic hats, they have the pleasure of yet another lie that graphologists love to spew: graphologists offer graphotherapy, which is handwriting therapy that can supposedly bestow patients with more desirable personality traits.  These exercises gradually regroove and retrain the subconscious mind which results in changes in the personality.  In just 30 days (but no absolutely no fewer than) you can make yourself a better person. Who would have ever suspected that crossing a “T” and dotting an “I” could be so important? From now on each cross to a “T” will be reshaped as a crucifix and each dot on an “I” will be a heart. Surely, if my personality improves with my handwriting, then certainly I can gain entrance into heaven if I work hard at it, especially if I take up calligraphy and practice while listening to Gregorian chant.  Obviously there isn’t any evidence to support these outlandish claims, and, in fact, the entire idea of changing your personality through your handwriting contradicts the basic claim of graphologists – “Handwriting is brainwriting.”  If you can alter your personality simply through changing your handwriting, wouldn’t that mean your handwriting controls your personality, not the other way around? Excuse me as I draw a pentagram.

Don’t Get It Confused
There is a legitimate form of handwriting analysis accepted in the forensic community.  Questioned document examiners (QDEs) analyze documents to look for signs of alteration, forgery, and match samples to authors, typewriters, or even copy machines.  QDE reports are admissible in court and have helped solve many crimes, such as the anthrax attack, the Hitler diaries, and the Zodiac killer.  Along with the reduction of white-collar crime, trained examiners have helped spot forged autographs from Elvis, Neil Armstrong, Babe Ruth, and more.  The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners recognizes those who have a minimum of two years training under a qualified forensic document examiner.

James Randi Pimp-Slaps a Graphologist
James Randi is a scientific skeptic known for his challenges to paranormal claims and pseudoscience.  He is founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation and developer of the one million dollar paranormal challenge.  Anyone able to demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria can claim the prize money.  It has yet to be claimed.  On episode 6 of his 1991 television series, Randi put a graphologist to the test.  The challenge was to match five writing samples to five women.  By chance alone the graphologist should’ve been able to correctly match one of the five samples.  See for yourself how he did below.

Seem legit to me.

In case all that hasn’t concerned you enough, today there are approximately 20,000 “certified” graphologists in the United States.  Courses are offered online (for only $997) that claim they can teach anyone how to analyze handwriting.  But beware, there are “fake” certifications out there.  I’ll leave it up to you to sort through which are fake and which are not and invite you to leave your snarky comments here.

  • Evelyn Stratmoen

    1. Your snarkiness is awesome.
    2. With the digital age, did any of these graphologists claim that not only handwriting but font chosen is an indicator of health/personality/issues unforeseen?
    3. It would be fun to be a pretend graphologist and tell everyone that their handwriting indicates they are psychopaths. But then, I have an odd sense of humor (just look at my handwriting).

  • intuitiveacuity

    This is such nonsense, no different from a number of other divining methods that somehow describe the core of an individual in vague enough terms for the Barnum effect to kick in. From there it is just a cold reading exercise with vaguely plausible nonsense being profferred to anyone that is willing to buy it, and the unfortunate result is that this “science” makes it into the mainstream and starts finding its way into the courtroom.

    Graphology belongs in the mid-19th century with table turning and seances.

  • psychodawn93

    This graphology is the same as palmistry or other methods we humans want to believe hold the key to our future. It just shows how gullible many people are. To believe a person’s personality can be told by the way they write is crazy, but it may be a moot point soon because who even writes these days? Everything is typed on a computer or smartphone or some other digital gadget. I even heard that they are not teaching cursive writing in some schools now because it has been deemed almost useless in our society. The students are only learning to print. How will they ever judge whether this next generation is right for a particular job if they can’t analyze a sample of their handwriting? The section about being able to gradually change your personality traits by changing your handwriting was very interesting, because as was pointed out – does our personality control our handwriting or vice versa? If our handwriting controls our personality the whole concept of graphology doesn’t make sense. Not that it made any sense anyway!

    • Thomas Taylor

      Sadly these people will likely move to another pseudoscience when people stop writing as often. I have already seen people judged by their cell phones and Ipads and I would suspect it will only get worse. Even though using criterion such as this is bad can you imagine how bad it will be when you’re hired based on your cell phone brand?

  • CathlinaSmith

    I had no idea that this sort of thing actually exists. I did have a coworker tell me my handwriting told her I was sad and angry and content on being alone. I never really thought about that until now. I always knew she was full of s**t but this really confirms it. Very enlightening.

  • narges30

    I do not believe that person will be judge based on his or her hand writing. I never thought about it. I’m sorry for those people who are judged by their hand writing for job hiring. I know most people do not have really good hand writing including myself.

  • ahuskey

    I think the graphotherapy really has to be the best part of this whole shenanigan! If that’s not a dead give-away as to the true purpose of such ploys (money making), they I don’t know what would! I wonder if the bright employers who use graphology to determine the adequacy and competency of their employees know that there are actual psychometrics available for administration to applicants free of charge…

  • pdavis13

    I can not believe there are actually 20,000 certified graphologists in the US at this moment. That’s insane. This b.s. that they are perpetuating is insane. Just everything involved is CRAZY! I always used to joke with my friends that my signature has a “serial killer slant” to it, but I never knew so many people really read into this and took it seriously.

  • Ryan Danger McCall

    I use to have a book about handwriting and how to better yourself and your mind through your handwriting. I never made it past the first chapter, Chapter A. The idea of changing your handwriting puts a hole on graphology itself. According to them, your personality is reflected through your handwriting. If you change your handwriting that is not going to change who you are. There was a teacher at my high school who would analyze students handwriting for them. It was always funny to see students reactions. I had mine done twice by this teacher, each time resulted in different personalities, even though I gave her the exact same handwriting sample as before!

  • jaymacg

    I’ll be honest, I was completely unaware of how big of a thing this was until I read this post. Certainly, the idea that there are 20,000 certified graphologists seems absurd, but not surprising considering what people will do to make a quick buck. The real shocker is how many people actually believe that these graphologists can accurately determine their personality based on their handwriting.

  • timharvey87

    I love that when people were at your booth and you analyzed their handwriting, you had to convince them that what you were doing was a pseudoscience. So many of them were convinced that you were accurate in your analysis that they probably left thinking that handwriting analysis was legit. It just shows how easily people will attribute broad information about all people to themselves specifically.

  • shanshan1314

    Hand writin to see personality? it is like Palmistry, if hand writing and face recognition and Palmistry could see personality, what could not? People analysis those just because they think it is easy to see. I believe if those things could see a person’s personality, trust me, tooth could see your personality, the glandular hair on the leg or the arm could anlysis one’s personality. People could see a lot from glandular hair i believe, how oily it is, how long it is, how often a person shave it, and of course you could recognize man or woman by it. or, even without the glandular hair a person could easily see if you are a man or woman! I just do not understand why people want to believe in it, people just want to hear what they want to hear, Wow, you will have a real good life, Wow, you are really smart! Wow, you will have a very beautiful family, things like that. Future is not on other’s mouth, it is on our hand.

  • vivianjingjing

    To some extent, there is some truth to this idea. For example, people who have a steady and mature character will more possible to have a neat handwriting. But it couldn’t be deduced from backward, which people who made good handwriting belong to steady personality.

  • Dustin Belden

    I actually had no idea that graphology is used this extensively. Ten percent of companies could use graphologists? How offensive. I’m not sure if I’d rather be hired or not based on my handwriting, or diagnosed for a health condition….

  • Adam Braly

    Like many others who have commented, I did not realize that this so prevalent. There was the awesome scene in the RDJ adaptation of Holmes where he fantastically deduces the identity of one Moriarty, but I assumed the media portrayal was hyperbole. I would be highly upset if I was denied a position for work based on my handwriting ability. Surely they aren’t using graphologists to hire physicians?

    I thoroughly enjoyed watching James Randi “pimp-slap” a graphologist :)

  • tinafriar

    The “pimp-slap” part of this was great! It is important to make the distinction that there is legitimate handwriting analysis and no so legit, and you did that. Otherwise, I’ve always thought that “what my handwriting says about me” was a load of crap, so thank you for making that clear here. ;)

  • fghani

    It still bewilders me that there are those that believe handwriting can determine one’s personality. Suddenly, I’m reminded of the graphology scene in that awful Catwoman movie. I did not realize that graphotherapy was a thing. What a scam! “These are all the wrong things that are going on with you. Now, I’m going to fix you.” Then again, this whole thing is a scam – $997 to be certified in pseudoscience? Yikes.

  • dandymandyl

    This is a really new topic to me all together and I really think I will be looking more into this. I really am shocked to learn that this is really a thing.