A few days ago I happened to see the article: Is Our Personality Written in Our Handwriting? listed as a “Featured” news item on the Yahoo homepage. This wasn’t a critical examination of graphology, as the title suggests. The article was written with the assumption that graphology works, and that it employs a scientific methodology.

Graphology, in the most common usage of the word, is the practice of handwriting analysis to identify a subject’s personality traits. Some graphologists further claim that they can read the subject’s past and present, forecast the future, and even diagnose illness. Some proponents claim graphology (or graphotherapy) is a treatment, and assert that if people change their handwriting style, they can break bad behaviors, alter their attitude and character, and even heal themselves.

We have to be mindful, as I type away on my keyboard, that few of us have much writing practice anymore, aside from our signatures.

I was once interviewed on the subject by ABC Science, where I said, “Graphology is the handwriting equivalent of palm reading”. We can perceive graphology as another kind of divination, alongside other practices of reading body parts, including iridology (reading the markings of the eyes), reading toes, and even bottoms.

This pseudoscience is not to be confused with the legitimate field of graphology (or graphonomy) better known as forensic document examination. This is the comparative analysis of handwriting examples, to determine if a sample is genuine or counterfeit, for example, comparing an authentic sample with a signature on a check, or a handwritten will. These specialists use Video Spectral Comparators, Electrostatic Detection Apparatus, Stereomicroscopes and computer based image enhancement programs. Despite the use of these tools, the results are not invariably accurate and some guesswork is involved, so we still need to remain skeptical.

Since graphology is used for diagnosis (some conditions affect handwriting production, such as Parkinson’s, but cannot be diagnosed by graphology) and as treatment, it is not an innocuous parlor trick, like reading tea leaves. Graphology can be dangerous, if taken seriously.

Graphology is used for employment screening and employee assessment. The site www.handwriting.com claims that 5000 companies in the US alone apply graphology to assess an applicant’s suitability for a role, and even to determine any risk for substance abuse. I’d rather take the urine test!

This is an unscientific, unproven technique that relies on unfounded, subjective analysis. Therefore, deciding whether to hire or fire someone on the basis of a graphology reading constitutes discrimination.

This is a matter of great concern for skeptics.

Not only is graphology unproven, it has been disproven many times. The "Amazing" Randi himself tested graphology in Episode 6 of James Randi - Psychic Investigator. In this show, a graphologist is asked to match 5 examples of handwriting to 5 subjects, determining their professions on the basis of a reading. The graphologist scored 1 out of 5, a result no greater than chance.

In an investigation I conducted (The Skeptic, Vol. 23, No. 3) I found that not only is graphology an unstructured analysis of features of handwriting style such as spacing, size, slant and pen pressure, but that the resulting reports tend to be subjective interpretations of writing content. If your handwriting example is a copy of a poem, you are perceived as “creative”; or if you write a brainteaser, you are perceived as “a problem-solver”. Graphology seems to be yet another method of cold reading.

As part of my investigation I road-tested a graphologist who gave me a “romance reading”. The graphologist analyzed handwriting examples from myself, and my boyfriend. She made some vague references to personality traits, then determined that we were a happy couple and would marry one day, provided we sort out a few minor relationships problems. Mostly, we were compatible.

This was fortunate, because both examples were of my own handwriting.

Karen Stollznow is a researcher, writer and a paranormal investigator, of the skeptical kind. With a PhD in Linguistics, Karen has a particular interest in language-related paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena, and owns the website Bad Language (www.bad-language.com).