We spend so much time on our smartphones and laptops that our penmanship doesn’t garner the same focus as it once did. Nowadays, the act of physically writing things down almost feels like an alternative. But how we write actually expresses our personality in ways that fonts and text messages simply can’t and perhaps accounts to how impersonal online interaction seems at times.
While it may feel like a lost art, the sociological aspects of handwriting are still fascinating and worth examining. In an interview with Business Insider, certified handwriting analyst Kathi McKnight revealed that our handwriting can reveal more than 5,000 different personality traits, from how we space our words (which can reveal if you’re an extrovert or an introvert) to the amount of pen pressure we apply (which can reveal your emotional state).
But the concept of handwriting analysis is also controversial—while many swear by it as a valuable indicator of a person’s true nature, others are more dismissive, writing it off as a pseudoscience.
In essence, handwriting analysis (also known as graphology) is often a misunderstood practice, but it can say more about us than you might expect, as we’re about to reveal.
So, let’s explore what our writing can reveal about us, why it raises eyebrows among skeptics, the misconceptions about its function, and more.
The Basics Of Handwriting Analysis
Annette Poizner, Columbia-trained clinical social worker and psychotherapist and author of Clinical Graphology: An Interpretive Manual for Mental Health Practitioners, says that at its root, “Graphology is a form of projective personality assessment; the latter is a discipline premised on the idea that people are so fundamentally expressive that they project their core patterns when they do virtually anything.”
“A trained practitioner can examine handwriting, drawings, and all the other ‘behavior samples’ and discern patterns of personality that relate to social style, talents, personality problems, foibles, interests.”
I love the personality in my handwriting. I love the visual of my transforming psyche
— Expensive Dreams (@incognitorari) May 23, 2018
Bart Baggett, forensic handwriting expert and handwriting analyst, is the founder of Handwriting University, which he says is “the biggest brand in the world, as far as teaching graphology.” Baggett says that handwriting analysis offers “everything that any test of personality (such as the Myers-Briggs) would have.”
This, he says, is what allows trained professionals in his field to determine factors like if one has an extroverted or introverted personality (which, in addition to the aforementioned letter spacing, can also be established by how large or how small you write), along with identifying issues like social aptitude, personal boundaries, and self-esteem (the latter of which can be determined by how legible your signature is).
Because of this, he adds, handwriting analysis can be particularly advantageous in the mental health field, as counselors and therapists can use it to glean more information from their patients and “start working on those core issues, which is really helpful.”
His opinion is shared by Poizner, who notes handwriting analysis’ “best use, actually, is clinical, using it in the same way as we use other soft data; therapists observe non-verbal mannerisms, analyze and reflect on clients’ use of words, collect clients’ nightly dreams, etc. A therapist does well to consider all forms of behavior, including handwriting.”
Is handwriting analysis a pseudoscience?
For all the ways that graphology can captivate advocates, it also garners its own share of critics, many who are dismissive of handwriting analysis as a whole. A 2017 piece from ZME Science wrote it off entirely, stating, “The pattern of your handwriting doesn’t describe your personality; graphology belongs in the same group as palm reading and astrology.”
Handwriting analysis is like gravity: just because you don't believe in it, doesn't mean it doesn't work. ~ Theresa Ortega
— Handwriting Sensei (@handwrtsensei) August 6, 2012
“There are, indeed, many misconceptions about graphology,” Poizner says. “Those who use it in isolation are misguided. Empirical investigation has not established either reliability or validity of this technique.”
“It’s wrong to assert that this technique has no value. Handwriting analysis used alongside other projective techniques allows practitioners to generate a detailed profile with tentative insights, which psychotherapy clients can then consider for accuracy and relevance,” she says.
“Why do we rely on the feedback of psychotherapy clients to establish the relevance of findings? Because projective personality assessment (including handwriting analysis) is an art form, not a science. It can, though, reveal a lot, can accelerate the therapeutic process and fascinate clients, drawing them into that process.”
In a piece for Psychology Today, graphologist Andrea McNichol explained the reasoning behind most people’s distrust of graphology: “Primarily it’s because about 60 years ago, this country was introduced to a simplistic offshoot of graphology called graphoanalysis. This method maintains that sweeping physical and psychological diagnoses can be made based on a simple examination of our individual letter shapes.”
“… any science which claims to diagnose based on such shallow observations is going to be discredited sooner or later, and within a few years of its inception, graphoanalysis was rejected as both a physiological and psychological diagnostic tool.”
“Graphoanalysis is dead—it’s not relevant,” Baggett says. He adds that many critics of handwriting analysis gained that opinion simply “because they’ve met people who are truly terrible at handwriting analysis!”
He also notes that one of the biggest misconceptions people have about handwriting analysis how it relates in the use of criminal forensics.
Catching Criminals Through Handwriting
Baggett says that one common misconception with handwriting analysis is the difference between graphology and forensic document examination. And he speaks from experience, as he’s trained in both disciplines and has offered his expert opinion on both subjects in appearances on CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC.
“Those are two totally different fields,” he clarifies. “A lot of people who do one don’t do the other. Some people that went to the FBI academy have never read a book on graphology. Not many people do both.”
So what does a court-qualified forensic document examiner do? Baggett says it involves having “the ability to look, handle, and give our expert opinion on the identity of the author—and from that we can opine if you wrote that or if someone forged your name.”
He also says that ability is just one “subset of forensic documentation. We also have the skill set to test the paper, test the ink … or anything fraudulent related to the document in general.”
Most cases, he adds, are civil matters, like investigating if a will signature has been forged. So, why do so many of us assume this is a tool the police utilize to catch a dangerous criminal before he strikes again? He says it’s because we’ve watched too many TV shows.
Baggett says much of what we see on police procedural shows like Criminal Minds is a “blend” of handwriting analysis and document examination that doesn’t cross-pollinate in law enforcement.
And one reason the two rarely mix is because graphology isn’t commonly used in criminal cases. “That only comes into play when and if sentencing and/or the mental capacity of individual is in question,” he explains, “but it doesn’t have the same level of recognition as psychiatry does in the eyes of the court.”
Our handwriting may predict our health.
Not only can handwriting expose our innermost feelings and least desirable traits, but it may also reveal the state of our health.
In a study published in 2013 by University Medical Center Groningen, a standardized writing test was used to see if 20 participants’ (10 with Parkinson’s, 10 without) handwriting could identify bradykinesia, micrographia, and tremor—all symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Participants completed a variety of written exercises, including tracing geometric shapes, where researchers measured the pen tip trajectories, and writing in cursive, where the researchers analyzed letter width.
Researchers of the study concluded it could “provide quantitative measures for the assessment of bradykinesia, micrographia, and tremor. Several of these measures distinguished clinically diagnosed Parkinson’s disease from a control group.”
In addition, there have been multiple studies showing handwriting analysis can help identify Alzheimer’s disease, including a 2006 Oxford Academic study which tested the handwriting of individuals with Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.
Their findings showed that there were “significant differences between the groups in almost all measures” by monitoring the pressure and angle the participants wielded their writing instrument, “together with cognitive functioning, allowed us to classify 69 percent to 72 percent of the participants correctly.”
While the researchers concluded that “future studies should expand on the results of our study,” tests like these have “important implications for the timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Baggett has firsthand experience in how handwriting and health can be linked, noting that a childhood head injury has affected his own writing, which always reveals “a small hesitation in the upper part of the ‘L,’ which correlates, according to the textbooks, to injuries in the head region.”
He notes that while diagnosing health issues through graphology is still in the research stage, “I think it’s useful, because if a doctor or a counselor sees things like that, it could be a clue.”
Why The French Love Handwriting Analysis
In France, graphology is quite well-regarded, eschewing the cynicism with which other cultures view the practice. And they use it in a way that might surprise you: the hiring process.
A 2013 piece by the BBC noted that “50 percent and 75 percent of companies make some use of handwriting analysis” in the selection of employees.
My mom is filling out job applications for me because she's embarrassed of my handwriting. It's that bad.
— Allie ✨ (@AllieRea_22) June 4, 2017
So how do they use it? The article stated that potential employees submit a handwritten cover letter, according to French graphologist Catharine Bottiau.
“We will examine the letters, and offer our advice. Usually this will tend to confirm the impressions already gleaned from interviews, the CV, personality tests and so on,” she said. “…But sometimes we can draw attention to aspects of personality that have been missed and which might prove detrimental were the person to be recruited.”
My handwriting feels like I am writing French letters. pic.twitter.com/A1C9kuYMII
— Raghda. (@Paravoid_) June 12, 2016
This leads to the next question: Why do the French put so much faith in handwriting analysis when so many other regions don’t?
Perhaps it’s because the French have their own methodology for graphology—originally developed by French Catholic priest Jean-Hippolyte Michon in the 1800s and expanded upon by a staunch fan of his, Jean Crépieux-Jamin, who published L’ABC de la graphologie (or The ABCs of Graphology) in 1929.
Baggett says that the French method (which he has also studied and incorporates into elements of what he calls “the American system”) simply is a “better methodology and a more accurate system—and when things are accurate, people use it, and when they aren’t accurate, they don’t.” As a result, handwriting analysis is easier to comprehend, hence why it’s taken more seriously.
Keeping An Open Mind (With A Pen Handy)
Maybe we all could take a lesson from the French and be more open minded about graphology, and at least explore the possibilities of what handwriting analysis has to say about our personalities, our health, and our abilities.
If more medical studies concur that it can be a valuable tool in identifying illness, this may be a reality. And if the current state of the American job market continues its cycle of record job vacancies due to trouble finding the right applicants, perhaps it could be helpful in the hiring process.
“Personally, I think when people use it for hiring they are really going out on a limb,” Poizner says, “and there has been legal ramifications for that use.”
“I place 100 or so people every year in very senior international positions,” Geoffroy Desvignes, a recruiter quoted in the aforementioned BBC piece, said. “…If graphology didn’t work, it would quickly become obvious, and I would lose my clients. But they keep coming back.”
Perhaps it’s up to the curious among us to take the plunge and decide if handwriting analysis is right for them (hint: if your lowercase ‘g’ slants to the right, it means you’re open to new things).
We just need time out to put down our smartphones, pick up a pen, and find out for ourselves.