It’s not in the way you write

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Myths / Psychology

It’s tempting to think the way you write – big or small letters, straight or on a lean, with or without swirls, neat or messy – says something about your personality. But is there any truth to handwriting analysis?

Interpreting handwriting is about as scientifically sound as reading palms, tarot cards or the bumps on your head. Image credit Anthony Citrano via Flickr

The rise of graphology

At first glance, the idea that personality is reflected in handwriting does have some appeal. After all, each of us has our own very personal writing style so perhaps the way we write is influenced by our personality.

Handwriting analysis – known as graphology – has been around for centuries. What we think was the first book proposing a link between handwriting and personality was published in 1575, by Spaniard Juan Harte de San Juan. Graphology really took off in the 19th century, led by Jean-Hippolyte Michon. For example, Michon claimed ‘all weak-willed people cross their t’s feebly’. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a series analysing the handwriting of prominent writers.

Research published in 1948 declared “it will be possible (within a not too distant future) to devise a psychodiagnostic test based upon handwriting analysis which will satisfy scientific standards”.

The British Institute of Graphologists claims ‘your handwriting gives the story of yourself’ and one popular infographic claims handwriting indicates more than 5000 personality traits. Handwriting analysts are always keen to discuss the handwriting of political leaders and incidently, Trump also declared himself a handwriting analyst.

The science is in

If you Google graphology you’ll find well over a million results. A number of them, even from what I would consider fairly reputable sites, support a link between handwriting and personality. There’s a TEDx talk, a recent article in Business Insider Australia and in the New York Times. A piece in the Guardian from only eight years ago discusses handwriting analysis as part of many recruitment processes, a practice apparently particularly commonly in France. And CNN also weighed in last year on the Trump handwriting discussion.

But in a review of over 200 studies on graphology, the results were clear: taken together, these studies show no link between personality and handwriting. For example, we know handwriting analysis can’t detect the Big Five personality traits, a staple in modern personality testing.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been the odd positive result. For example, one German study from nearly twenty years ago found a link between the personality trait of agreeableness and slower speed of handwriting. Another study suggested graphologists were able to infer extraversion from handwriting (although it raised questions about definitions of extraversion). There is also some evidence of gender differences in handwriting.

But after fifty years of study, we don’t have any solid evidence that you can reliably determine a person’s personality from their handwriting.

Another pseudoscience

Prominent skeptic and professor of psychology Barry Beyerstein was particularly vocal in declaring graphology a pseudoscience, akin to describing a person’s personality on the basis of their skull shape. But he was also interested in why many intelligent, educated people believe in it. Perhaps it’s simply because we like the idea that our handwriting is somehow a true expression of ourselves.

Interestingly, one study found students were capable of altering their handwriting in order to change their teachers’ impressions of them. That suggests we do have shared beliefs about what certain types of handwriting mean, even if they’re wrong.

And we shouldn’t dismiss looking at handwriting all together: one study found a link between signature size and personality traits. People with larger signatures tended to be more socially dominant. More importantly, there’s evidence changes in handwriting can be indicative of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

I’m happy to concede there may be occasions when scientists should analyse handwriting for health purposes. But if I’m ever asked to provide a handwriting sample with a job application, I’ll be thinking very carefully about whether I really want the job.

Links and stuff

2 Comments

  1. Great topic. I loved the extra article on the ball point pen. Personally I can’t stand using ball point pens. I use either felt tip or a pencil – much smoother and makes my writing look better too

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