Graphology

Graphology, or handwriting analysis, is sometimes used to assess personality or make inferences about specific attributes such as integrity. The underlying theory is that there are a number of structural characteristics of a person’s handwriting that provide reliable indications of personality, including traits such as honesty or loyalty. There are serious questions regarding the validity of assessments provided by this technique; graphology is sometimes classified as a quasi-occult practice, comparable to astrology, palmistry, numerology, and other similar methods. Despite well-founded concerns about the validity of graphological assessments, this method is widely used, especially in Israel and France. In the United States several thousand employers are thought to use graphology in preemployment screening.

It is important to distinguish graphology from the practice of forensic graphoanalysis. Graphoanalysis is a method for authenticating documents such as letters and signatures and is widely used in criminal investigations and in civil procedures including contested wills. Graphoanalysts do not attempt to draw inferences about the person based on handwriting; graphologists claim to be able to make such inferences.

The Graphologists’ Method

Graphology involves an examination of a number of specific structural characteristics of a handwriting sample, such as letter shapes and sizes, which are used to make inferences about the writer. For example, in some systems of graphological analysis, the degree of slope in a person’s letters is thought to indicate the extent to which a person is introverted versus extroverted. Computerized systems for handwriting analysis exist, but most graphological analyses are still done by individual graphologists. Graphologists typically insist that the handwriting sample for analysis must be spontaneous and that handwriting samples involving copying text from a book or writing a passage from memory do not yield a valid reading. The writing sample requested by a graphologist is often a brief autobiographical sketch or some other sort of self-description.

Graphologists claim that neither the content nor the quality of the writing sample, such as fluency and clarity of expression, influence their assessments and that their evaluations are the result of close examination of the features of letters, words, and lines in the sample. There are several reasons to believe that this claim is false and that even if graphologists try to ignore the content of the writing sample, their assessments are nevertheless strongly influenced by that content. First, several studies have shown that when the same biographical passages are examined by graphologists and nongraphologists, their assessments of individual examinees tend to agree, and graphologists are no more valid in their assessments than nongraphologists. Because nongraphologists presumably do not attend in a systematic way to the graphological features of the writing, but rather to the content of the stories, their ability to make assessments that are similar to and every bit as good as those made by professional graphologists strongly suggests that both groups are attending to the same material—specifically, the content of the writing samples. Indeed, studies by Gerson Ben-Shakhar and his colleagues have shown that predictions based solely on the content of the writing  sample are more valid than those obtained from professional graphologists. Second, when the content of passages is not biographical in nature (e.g., meaningless text or text copied from some standard source), graphologists seldom make valid predictions. If their predictions depended solely on the structural features of letters, the content of the passages should not make a difference.

Validity of Graphological Analysis

In evaluating graphology, there are two separate questions that might be asked. First, how valid and reliable are the general predictions produced by a graphological analysis? For example, if graphology is used in personnel selection, we might ask the graphologist to predict who is more or less likely to perform well on the job. Second, how accurate are the specific assessments of particular personality traits? If graphology is used to measure specific traits, such as integrity, we might ask whether this method provides valid measures of that trait.

There is evidence that graphologists can make somewhat valid predictions of a job applicant’s overall performance, but it is also clear that nongraphologists who examine the same material make equally valid predictions. This research suggests that there is little to be gained from attending to the purely grapho-logical aspects of the writing sample.

The available evidence also casts doubt on graphologists’ ability to make even the most general assessments of individuals, or at least to do a better job than nongraphologists given the same materials. It is notable that graphologists refuse to predict some easily verifiable characteristics of writers, such as their gender, something untrained individuals can do with considerable accuracy. There is no reason to believe that graphological assessments of specific characteristics such as honesty and integrity are accurate or valid.

Accounting for the Continuing Appeal of Graphology

Numerous studies of graphology show that assessments of personality made on the basis of examination of the structural characteristics of handwriting samples are neither valid nor valuable. The underlying theory—that specific personality characteristics are reliably translated into specific characteristics of a person’s handwriting such as the size of letters, the degree of slant, or other common graphological signs—is simply wrong. Given its questionable status, how can someone account for the continuing popularity of graphology?

There are several potential explanations for the continuing popularity of graphology. First, the idea that handwriting reveals character is ancient and can be traced at least as far back as the Roman Empire, and the assumption that graphology should work has long been common in Western civilization. Second, proponents of this method claim that graphology provides what virtually every manager wants—a window into the minds of the employees. Third, it is a potentially unobtrusive method. For example, it is common to ask job applicants to provide a brief biographical statement, which can easily be subjected to graphological analysis.

Although it remains an important part of many selection systems, there is no justification for using graphology to make important decisions about individuals.

References:

  1. Bar-Hillel, M., & Ben-Shakhar, G. (1986). The a priori case against graphology. In B. Nevo (Ed.), Scientific aspects of graphology (pp. 263-279). Chicago: Charles C Thomas.
  2. Ben-Shakhar, G., Bar-Hillel, M., Blum, Y., Ben-Abba, E., & Flug, A. (1986). Can graphology predict occupational success: Two empirical studies and some methodological ruminations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 645-653.
  3. Ben-Shakhar, G., Lieblich, I., & Bar-Hillel, M. (1982). An evaluation of polygraphers’ judgments: Review from a decision theoretic perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 701-713.
  4. Murphy, K. (1993). Honesty in the workplace: Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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