Apr 30 2013

Graphology

Imagine applying for a job, a position you really want and feel is a good match for your skills, and during the interview process you are seated in front of a psychic. The psychic is wearing full regalia, with a turban, crystals, and mystical garb. They proceed to give you a psychic reading – a reading which will be used to decide whether or not you will be hired for your dream job.

You can substitute any number of techniques for the psychic reading – a tarot card reading, palm reading, astrological chart, or phrenological analysis. Would you feel comfortable with such techniques deciding your fate? Would you feel outraged?

That is exactly what is happening in many corporations today, particularly in France. The technique that is being used, however, is graphology. It is as legitimate as any cold-reading technique (that is, not at all) but retains a veneer of scientific legitimacy. Graphology, or handwriting analysis, is a psychic cold-reading dressed up for the corporate world.

Graphology was first developed by Jean-Hippolyte Michon, a French priest and archaeologist. He published his first journal of graphology in 1871. The idea is that the particular aspects of a person’s handwriting reveals their character. Graphologists study the size, slope, pressure, connections, and other tiny details of handwriting, with each detail revealing an aspect of personality.

Like iridology, palmistry, and astrology, there is a complex system of graphology that can take years to master. That in itself, however, does not say anything about the legitimacy of graphology. People are industrious and we are good at developing complex systems based on nothing at all, except our imagination. Complexity alone is not a sign of validity.

The beginning of exploration is doubt. Skeptics learn about the many mechanisms of self-deception so that we understand that just because something seems to be real, that does not mean that it is. This is the motivation for scientific analysis – controlling for all of those mechanisms of deception and bias. Only then will we know if a phenomenon is real or not.

Handwriting analysis has been subjected to properly blinded experimental tests. Graphologists are given samples of text that are neutral, meaning that the content of the text does not reveal anything about the person writing it. They are also blinded to the target subject, and given the task of analyzing the handwriting. Their results are then compared to standard personality profiles of the subject, and to other graphologists examining the same samples.

The results of such studies, not surprisingly, show that graphology provides no information to the graphologist. Their readings do not match the personality of the target, nor do they even match each other. Graphology does not work.

In a related study the graphologists were given autobiographical texts, and their readings were far more accurate. However, laypersons were also given the same text and they did just as well. This convincingly shows that graphologists get their information from means other than analyzing handwriting.

One interesting study showed handwriting samples along with fake personality profiles. They found that naive subjects rated the match between the two more highly when the rules of graphology were followed. The authors conclude that part of graphology’s continued popularity and use may be due to the inherent biases in perceived correlation. In other words – flowery script equaling a flowery personality makes superficial intuitive sense and give graphology a legitimate feel (even though that feeling is completely illusory).

This is a common theme that we see in many such pseudosciences – they tend to follow naive but universal human biases. Sympathetic magic is one example – things have a function that mirrors what they look like. Powdered rhino horn is therefore used as an aphrodisiac. A long life line equals a long life (an analogy between linear dimension and temporal dimension).

The real world, however, is often counter-intuitive and does not comfortably conform itself to our biases.

The recent BBC article about graphology in France contains some very revealing quotes from graphology proponents.  The sentiments expressed can be, and have been, used to defend every type of pseudoscience you can imagine.

Graphologist Bertram Durand defends his craft by saying:

“And just because we cannot measure its success rate using mathematics or statistics – that doesn’t mean it is not a valid tool. In all our client studies, there is an extremely high satisfaction coefficient. People use it because it works.”

Sorry, Durand, but the fact that you cannot measure its success in controlled studies absolutely means that it is not a valid tool.  That’s why we do controlled studies.

He then makes the argument from popularity – a blatant logical fallacy. Contained in that fallacy is extreme (perhaps willful) naivete about human perception. He is essentially arguing that people could not be fooled into thinking graphology works if it didn’t. This is demonstrably false. People can be fooled into believing almost anything. Psychologists have documented numerous sources of bias and flawed thinking that lead to confident but false conclusions.

Graphologist Geoffroy Desvignes says:

“I have no idea how it works, but to me it is obvious: the handwriting of a marketing guy is not the same as the handwriting of a sales guy, which is not the same as the handwriting of an artist or of an accountant at Deloittes!”

The, “I don’t know how it works, it just does,” defense of the implausible. The evidence shows that it does not work, but Desvignes appeals to the intuitiveness of graphology. He nicely demonstrates what the researchers found above – that graphology has an intuitive feel, even though it has no basis in reality.

When all else fails, appeal to a conspiracy. Durand is quoted as saying:

“There is a big psychology lobby that has it in for us. Companies that produce recruitment personality tests have a big interest in undermining what we do, and they have a lot of means.”

Right – Big Psychology is keeping graphology down so they can corner the market in corporate recruitment analysis.

Conclusion

Graphology does not work. It provides no unique information or insight to graphologists, who cannot even agree with each other when reading the same handwriting.  Like many systems that developed in the 18th and 19th century (phrenology, homeopathy, iridology) it is sciencey but lacks a true scientific background. It is naively appealing, but there is no scientific evidence-base to back it up. When subjected to controlled observation, like N-rays, it simply does not exist.

Graphology can sometimes function as a cold reading, but most often it is a hot reading. Graphologists get their information from other sources, mostly the content of the writing (rather than the form of the writing).

Graphology is no more legitimate than a psychic in a turban, but has maintained a superficial respectability that allows it to continue in the corporate world. Fake psychics are savvy to this marketing angle of graphology.

Mark Edward wrote a revealing article on Skepticblog describing how he sells cold readings to corporations by putting on his tweed jacket and doing handwriting analysis.  Perhaps the night before he was wearing a turban and doing a psychic reading. It’s the same shtick with a different costume and props.

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34 responses so far

34 Responses to “Graphology”

  1. jblumenfeldon 30 Apr 2013 at 9:17 am

    I can attest to this – at least as it pertains to France. When I was transferred from London to Paris in 1990, I was asked for a handwriting sample. I went to my boss and begged off, using the excuse that I was already an employee, so it really shouldn’t be necessary. He was pretty embarrassed and let me off, but I wonder what I would have done if he hadn’t? I’d say ‘unbelievable’, but sadly, it isn’t.

  2. champenoiseon 30 Apr 2013 at 9:48 am

    I love how Durand dismisses mathematics and then says ‘satisfaction coefficient’.

  3. Sherringtonon 30 Apr 2013 at 10:52 am

    In the BBC article, Durand states that graphology is “based on Jungian psychology.” This guy doesn’t seem to understand that if you are going to attempt the “appeal to authority” fallacy, you should at least choose a credible authority.

  4. ccbowerson 30 Apr 2013 at 11:06 am

    “Sympathetic magic is one example – things have a function that mirrors what they look like. Powdered rhino horn is therefore used as an aphrodisiac. A long life line equals a long life (an analogy between linear dimension and temporal dimension).”

    Sympathetic magic is a bit broader than just appearances. I would include: playing (name your favorite musician here)’s instrument will help a person play that instrument, drinking cow’s milk will increase breast milk production, “like cures like” in homeopathy.

    Perhaps you were not intending to define sympathetic magic in this quote, but its use beyond appearances is pretty common.

  5. eiskrystalon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:16 am

    I don’t understand how anyone could take this seriously once they start thinking about it. Handwriting is almost pure practice, it’s a learned thing. Not to mention how trivially easy it would be to fake.

    I can make my handwriting look however I want with practice, it’s called Calligraphy. Also if I hold the paper at a slight angle so the letters are no longer quite straight, does that mean my personality has suddenly changed?

  6. jblumenfeldon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:33 am

    Eiskrystal, you are clearly a ‘handwriting manipulative type,’ easily detected through a phrenological examination.

  7. Ori Vandewalleon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:36 am

    eiskrystal:

    The obvious conclusion is that calligraphists have DID.

  8. DOYLEon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:44 am

    To nip any bullshit in the bud,follow one provision:never allow someone else to conjure or portend anything about you except your direct actions.

  9. eiskrystalon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:46 am

    Oh, I can quite imagine our good friend talking to school classrooms about the dangers of calligraphy and how to say no to gateway inks.

    Phrenology works. I know this because when I accidently banged my head recently and was left with a new indentation, my usually placcid personality was suddenly quite changed.

  10. Therion2012on 30 Apr 2013 at 11:47 am

    @eiskrystal I agree that the ability to change handwriting without changing the personality, resulting in a probably somewhat different assessment with no change in personality, is evidence against graphology.

    However, being able to manipulate the test is imho not evidence against it: Being able to go running before measuring blood pressure does not mean measuring blood pressure is scam.

  11. jblumenfeldon 30 Apr 2013 at 11:50 am

    @eiskrystal – try ramming a dowsing rod in your ear. If you wear a tinfoil hat, you can then tune your personality to whatever you want. Plus you may pick up FM on your fillings.

  12. eiskrystalon 30 Apr 2013 at 12:06 pm

    @Therion – True, but the ease of changing personalities by holding your pen differently was merely there to highlight the inherent flaw of relying on a learned technique to guess someone’s inherent personality, and apparently…also current job.

  13. Bronze Dogon 30 Apr 2013 at 3:07 pm

    I’m reminded of another bit of woo that’s been used to deny people jobs: Blood type personalities. Apparently in Japan, there are people who think your blood type determines your personality and are willing to deny people a job for having the “wrong” blood type for it.

  14. Marshallon 30 Apr 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I have a great scenario in my head where I look incredulously at the psychic, saying, “Are you for real?” When they start to object, I chuckle to myself storm into the other room, find someone in upper management, and say something along the lines of, “call me when you want your company to be taken seriously.”

    I doubt I’d actually do that, but I hope that I would.

  15. evhantheinfidelon 30 Apr 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I should move to France and apply for a job where they use graphological screening. Then, when writing my application, make subtle pictures of killing the employer out of the characters!

  16. ConspicuousCarlon 30 Apr 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Hiring people is an activity with a poor rate of return. There are different degrees of dysfunction among employees and different levels of hiring difficulty for different jobs, but it would not be unusual for an employer to have some level of regret for about half of their new employees even with standard [legitimate] screening methods. That sort of randomness makes people ripe for superstition.

  17. SARAon 30 Apr 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I read a book on handwriting analysis when I was in my early 20′s. It was great party entertainment for friends. Of course I couldn’t remember most of the meanings of various things so I just made it up and almost invariably people would nod their heads and look at me like I was reading their minds.

    I used to do the same thing at happy hours with palm reading with the same response. After awhile I felt guilty and so I would end the reading with the fact that I know absolutely nothing about palm reading and made the whole thing up. They generally got upset rather than laughing at their own belief reflex.

    And as far as I know, none of them learned anything from my silly entertainment and object lesson. They all continued to believe in woo.

  18. ccbowerson 30 Apr 2013 at 10:13 pm

    “That sort of randomness makes people ripe for superstition.”

    For activities in which there is a limited amount of control, or poor odds, superstitious thinking becomes more common. You are right, hiring definitely seems to fit.

    The most obvious are gamblers and atheletes, for which superstitions become part of the subcultures. I’m curious if there are data that distingushes between sports. For some reason baseball in particular (in the US anyways) seems to have a reputation for superstitious behaviors/beliefs among the atheletes. I wonder if that is directly correlated to the likelihood of success for each athelete. A very good hitter in baseball get a hit maybe 30% of the time (1-2 hits on average in a game), but in other sports success may be more common or measured in ways that feel more within a player’s control.

  19. Dreaded Anomalyon 01 May 2013 at 12:04 am

    This is just the tip of the iceberg for France: there, “big psychology” is Freudian psychoanalysis.

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/02/tear-down-wall-psychoanalysts-suppress.html

  20. ConspicuousCarlon 01 May 2013 at 12:17 am

    ccbowers:

    I can’t remember where I heard it, and my lack of baseball knowledge muddies the details, but I did hear one of the major skeptics mention something like there being more superstitious stuff for hitters than for outfielders. I might have the positions mixed up.

  21. Jared Olsenon 01 May 2013 at 5:17 am

    Is it possible that Graphology is readily believed because we’ve all grown up with the ‘security’
    measure of handwritten signatures? Occasionally I still have to sign for credit card purchases and I’m always amused by how different my signature looks each time, but it never seems to matter…

  22. Bruce Woodwardon 01 May 2013 at 6:58 am

    Or signing for parcels on those little electronic pads… my 5 month old son could do something more legible on those than I do.

  23. ccbowerson 01 May 2013 at 11:06 am

    “I can’t remember where I heard it, and my lack of baseball knowledge muddies the details, but I did hear one of the major skeptics mention something like there being more superstitious stuff for hitters than for outfielders. I might have the positions mixed up.”

    Yeah, I’m not a baseball guy myself, but perhaps they meant more superstious attitudes about offense (hitting) versus defense (outfield), because outfielders are hitters as well. I could see that being true, but that could also be a result of a more general bias towards offensive performance, which is true in many sports.

  24. ConspicuousCarlon 01 May 2013 at 11:14 am

    I think they also said that the most crazy stuff is actually when they are sitting on the bench and have no control at all. I really should try to find that.

  25. ccbowerson 01 May 2013 at 11:19 am

    CC –
    There was a “Point of Inquiry” podcast that discussed this months ago. Perhaps that is what you are thinking of.

  26. Wayneon 01 May 2013 at 1:08 pm

    So then, it is just chance a correlation that my handwriting is as messy as everything else in my life (desk, kitchen, clothes, relationships, etc.)?

    Just kidding!

  27. ccbowerson 01 May 2013 at 1:49 pm

    “So then, it is just chance a correlation that my handwriting is as messy as everything else in my life”

    I have terrible handwriting, and I partially blame the amount of notes I have taken over many years of school. As a student, I felt the need to write everything down during lectures – therefore speed is prioritized over neatness. It couldn’t be a huge effect due to many other factors, but I wonder if there is any correlation between handwriting and level of education. I’m sure the fact that I put little effort into decent handwriting is the bigger factor, but I find that writing is a skill that I am using less and less.

  28. supernovaneutrinoson 01 May 2013 at 8:21 pm

    not 100% sure about this one..

    I found several studies (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17313607 , http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10639978, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1285461, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1702283)
    that seems to indicate that there is a certain degree of accuracy or at least usefullness in graphology.
    I don’t think that it is all it claims to be, but it seems to be able to recognize certain traits of character or certain emotional state in the subjects.

  29. Nitpickingon 01 May 2013 at 9:42 pm

    I haven’t looked lately, but 10 years ago the evidence was that interviews are also totally useless in judging a potential hire. Only analysis of written documents (work history, schooling, etc.) had any value.

  30. Bill Openthalton 02 May 2013 at 7:33 am

    Nitpicking

    Degrees only prove the person was able to take the relevant exams (sometimes a long time ago). Work history can be enbellished. How many companies or organisations thoroughly check resumes?

    If anything, an interview, if done by the immediate superior and/or co-workers of the prospective hire, can give an idea of their compatibility with the team.

  31. Steven Novellaon 02 May 2013 at 9:37 am

    supernova – only the first of those four references are to an actual controlled study. Two are just commentaries, and the last is a case series without any apparent control.

    The study on suicides, very revealingly, found no difference between trained graphologists and internists without any training in graphology. Therefore, if you believe that study, training in graphology is unnecessary, and therefore all of the apparent specialized knowledge of graphologists is of no value.

    But the study also has a major flaw – the subjects (suicide attempts and healthy controls) were allowed to write letters and determine their own content. Letters expressing sadness were taken out, but even then that allows for the content of the letters (rather than the handwriting) to provide information. This possibility is supported by the fact that the untrained internists were also able to infer from the content who were the likely suicide attempts.

    If that’s the best there is to support graphology, then the very evidence you provide supports the conclusion (reached by systematic reviews) that graphology is worthless.

  32. cbeckeon 02 May 2013 at 11:06 am

    On the subject of pseudoscience in hiring, is there any substantial evidence that the Myers/Briggs personality test is a useful predictor of anything? I’ve had to take these several times in business and academic situations, and I’ve always suspected that it is complete bunk.

  33. embeeteeon 04 May 2013 at 1:28 am

    Jared, I remember a heated disagreement with a bank teller at a branch of my bank which was not my home branch – same city, and it’s *my* bank, so hardly a suspicious setup – who refused to accept my signature as mine because it didn’t match the one on my ID in every little detail. I sign my name sometimes dozens of times a day, and as you say, they can vary significantly in detail.

    On graphology, I was hired for my current job at an executive level by a management consulting firm charged with filling the position, a firm which used multiple personality tests and, yes, a graphology test.

    I bit my tongue and the firm, which I’ve now worked at for 15 years, has been a great company to work with…but it sure made me consider carefully what I was getting into.

  34. BillyJoe7on 06 May 2013 at 6:14 pm

    “but I did hear one of the major skeptics mention something like there being more superstitious stuff for hitters than for outfielders”

    In Australian Rules Football, it’s the forwards who have the superstitions. They’re the ones who kick goals. If a mid fielder makes a mistake is not that big a deal, he can retrieve the ball or come back later. But when the forward lines up for a goal he is expected to kick it. That’s pressure, and that makes him ripe for superstition. One forward always pulled out a tuft of grass throwing it into the air to measure wind direction. The problem is that he had to continue to do this when, later in his career, he played in one of the new indoor venues. It was both funny and sad to watch….especially as he played for the Essendon Bombers.

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