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.
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.
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.