Writing off Graphology
- Alina Tambuwala
The way you cross your ‘t’s and loop your ‘o’s can not only reveal how accident prone you are, but also whether or not you have criminal tendencies. The above claim probably sounds like a stretch, because it is – one of the many that graphology makes.
Graphology is the (pseudo)science of handwriting analysis. It studies the physical attributes of a person’s handwriting, and determines their personality traits. This is based on the principle that every individual's handwriting has a character of its own and this is entirely due to the uniqueness of the writer's personality.
Graphology has been around for a long time, and gained popularity in the 17th century, especially in France, where it is still widely used. Psychologists like Gordon Allport and Alfred Binet were proponents of it, and Binet was the first to bring the elusive approach under scientific scrutiny. However, graphology lost support from the research community over the last century. There have been only 6 published researches between 1976 and 1996 that attempt to assess the effectiveness of graphology from a scientific point of view, three of which were negative.
Graphologists say that it has its roots in science, and claims to be a projective technique. However, projective techniques of personality assessment are themselves limited, and their validity is widely debated among the scientific community. Even with their limited validity,though, they have certain defining characteristics, i.e.,
the lack of stimulus structure.
the multiplicity of responses permitted, and
the absence of right or wrong answers.
Of these, graphology checks only the last box of (ahem) not having any correct answers. It requires a structured piece of writing on a topic usually suggested by the graphologist, and does not allow multiple responses.
In my opinion, the latter is problematic because people are in different states of mind at different times, due to which responses will differ. Having a larger database of someone’s responses, especially with context to graphology, and the aspects it claims to measure, can help construct a more accurate personality profile, and allow for empirical analyses of reliability and validity of their utility in profiling personalities. Not permitting more than one response signifies an inherently biased process and rigidity.
Then, there is the issue of semantics. All well-constructed psychological tests make use of operational definitions to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the trait being measured, and what it entails. However, graphology does not have these considerations. So when saying that a person’s handwriting shows they are honest, there is no true understanding, because there is no agreement to what ‘honest’ means.
What makes graphology a pseudoscience?
There is little association between the results of psychological assessments of personality, and those of handwriting analysis. Empirical studies have consistently failed to find accurate predictions of personality traits by analyzing handwriting. Another study employed forensic writing experts to independently assess the writing samples of students who took the NEO-Five Factor Inventory and Eysenck Personality Questionnaire -Revised tests, two psychological measures of trait based personality, and found no evidence of personality being able to be inferred from handwriting.
The inconsistency extends even amongst graphologists. There is no standardization within the field, and this leads to the issue of inter-rater reliability (the extent of agreement between two or more evaluators on a psychological assessment). Hence, for many graphologists, interpretation of a handwriting sample is subjective and susceptible to their internal biases. For instance, there are disagreements on what US President Donald Trump’s signature says about him. Either he ‘lacks empathy and craves power, prestige and admiration’ or he has ‘acute analytical and lightning speed quick thinking’.
How much of an advantage do graphologists have into peering into our personalities, anyway?
According to a study by Neter and Ben-Shakhar, hardly any better than you and me. The researchers analysed 17 studies on personnel selection using graphology as a means for personality assessment, by comparing evaluations made by 63 graphologists and 51 non-graphologists (the control group) who evaluated a total of 1223 handwritten scripts. Representative correlation showed that the accuracy of determining personality traits of the personnel was almost the same between the graphologists and non-graphologists, ie, there was no significant difference between the ‘experts’ and non experts’ evaluations.
Another study paired handwriting samples with fabricated personality profiles, and got them inspected by non-graphologists. In one experiment, handwriting samples and personality profiles were randomly paired i.e. there were negligible correlations between handwriting features and personality traits, as claimed by graphologists. In the second, the handwriting samples were paired with personality traits that had very high correlations – close to unity (almost perfect correlation).
In both cases, the non-graphologists found relatedness and systematic relationships between the handwriting features and personality traits, irrespective of whether or not they were statistically correlated. This could be because their judgments were biased in the direction of semantics – words used to describe the personality traits. This implies that semantic association, which appears to drive illusory correlation, could be the origin of experts' theories.
Why do so many people believe in graphology?
Speaking of semantic issues, another reason why graphology seems like it works could be the Barnum Effect. It is easy to write descriptions that fit a vast majority of people – much like horoscopes and astrological predictions. Psychologists prepared such descriptions to show their students that the relatability of a personality description doesn’t mean it’s a reliable one.
In my observation, graphological interpretations are too simple to be accurate. It seems like whatever metaphors the physical characteristics of someone’s handwriting bring to mind, are necessarily descriptive of the writer as well. For example, having 2 loops in the alphabet ‘o’ is symbolic of dishonesty to oneself and others – because too many loops imply that a person is not straightforward.
To illustrate, the image below is from the database of a research paper that gives a standard for a graphological interpretation of personality traits from alphabets.
From this database, I found that multiple personality traits mentioned applied to me, but my handwriting didn’t look like a lot of the samples. My handwriting also changes depending on the stationery I use, my posture, etc. Based on the claims of graphology, one would wonder whether I’m a different person every time I write.
Having argued that graphology isn’t actually a science, it is important to think about why ignorance about its true nature is problematic.
Graphology joins pseudosciences such as phrenology and eugenics, in encouraging immoral and discriminatory behaviour through fake empiricism. Just as phrenology was used to justify the superiority of Europeans over other races and males over females, graphology claims to be able to identify non-Aryans. It makes sweeping claims, like being able to predict criminality and mental illness. It also advocates its use for identifying red flags in relationships, and choosing people to spend your life with.
Above all, graphology claims to be a reliable tool in personnel selection in the organizational sector, where it is widely used. Very little research is devoted to this in Europe, because selection is based largely on graphologist’s judgments. In addition to the lack of validity of graphology mentioned previously, there is also little interaction between industrial psychologists and graphologists, to verify the method’s effectiveness.
Why, then, is graphology still used, despite overwhelming data on its ineffectiveness? Graphology may not have empirical validity, but it does have what is called face validity, and personal validity. Face validity refers to the fact that handwriting appears to have the right kind of properties for reflecting personality. Personal validity refers to the subjective feeling imparted by exposure to a graphological analysis that it is accurate and right on the button, and hence manages to capture the true core of one's personality, i.e. the aforementioned Barnum effect.
There also seems to be a gap between the knowledge of researchers, and the potential consumers of graphology. In other words, people just don’t know about the lack of evidence of it.
With graphology being widely used in many important areas in our lives such as mental health diagnosis and job recruitment, it is necessary to question its basis. Education is the largest part of what will ensure that people don’t lose opportunities at jobs they might be well qualified for, partners they may be compatible with, or standing in society, based on bogus claims.
It is well past time we write, sorry, right the wrongs of graphology.
Alina Tambuwala is a Social Media Coordinator at Nolmë Labs and a graduate in psychology. She aspires to work in the field of mental health and clinical psychology. She will often be found in her balcony painting, reading, or humming her favourite tunes.