Writing Wrongs

Back in the 1950s, explosions caused a wave of panic in New York City, and the public became concerned about a mysterious individual known as the Mad Bomber. After the Mad Bomber sent a letter to a newspaper expressing his grievances against the government, a graphologist was asked to examine his handwriting. The Mad Bomber was so displeased with the graphologist’s interpretation of his handwriting that he reached out to the newspaper to complain, unwittingly providing further insight into his identity and leading to his capture. This story is perhaps the only known instance in which graphology, the practice of deducing personality traits from handwriting, produced a positive outcome. Recently, graphology made headlines in connection with doodles at a conference attributed to Tony Blair, but which were later revealed to be those of Bill Gates.

Graphologists believe that writing can reveal a person’s innermost states, whether or not they are consciously aware of them. Companies such as Datagraph assess over 400 different handwriting traits, while some companies offer analyses of more than a hundred. However, despite the fact that over 200 scientific studies have been conducted on graphology, no practical value has been established regarding associations between handwriting and personality. It has been suggested that graphology’s limited predictive ability when applied to personality may be based on inherent gender and social status information found in most handwriting samples.

Despite its lack of scientific support, in countries such as France, graphology is still used by up to 93% of companies in personnel selection, while in the United Kingdom and the United States, the figure is thought to be closer to 5-10%. In 17 studies devoted to the subject, researchers have shown that graphologists are not able to accurately predict job performance from handwriting.

Recently, University of Waterloo psychologists Roy King and Derek Koehler explored the reasons why the public and major corporations continue to accept graphology, even though science has not. A review of previous studies showed that members of the public possessed a surprisingly high level of agreement regarding various aspects of handwriting and their relationship to different personality traits. For example, it is commonly agreed that untidy handwriting indicates depression, despite a lack of scientific support for this conclusion.

King and Koehler suggested that graphologists’ theories may be based on the public’s existing intuitive ideas about handwriting. In a test, they asked undergraduate students to compare handwriting samples with personality profiles, without explaining that the personality profiles had in fact been assigned randomly. The raters identified numerous associations between handwriting and personality, such as fast writing being linked to impulsiveness, without realizing the samples were paired randomly. They even identified the same associations as graphologists, such as optimistic personalities being linked to ascending handwriting–despite the fact that there is no scientific basis for this claim.

In a follow-up study, King and Koehler gave participants samples of supposedly opposite handwriting and personality profiles. However, the raters still identified fast writing with impulsive individuals. Perhaps the issue with graphology is that, because both handwriting and personality vary from person to person, we are more inclined to believe that different handwriting styles reflect who we are. Just as the Victorians believed that different skull bumps illustrated different personalities, the use of graphology remains unscientific and irrelevant, despite our willingness to believe in it. Raj Persaud of the Maudsley hospital and the Oxford Companion to the Mind wrote this article.


  • oscarcunningham

    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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