Handwriting analysis, or graphology, as it is otherwise called, is the study of an individual’s handwriting sample done in order to make judgments about the individual’s personality traits or his or her tendency to behave in certain ways. The major use of contemporary handwriting analysis is as a staffing tool by business organizations. Job applicants submit handwriting samples to trained graphologists, who examine characteristics of each applicant’s handwriting and provide a summary of personality traits suggested by characteristics of the writing sample. The graphologist’s conclusions may indicate the degree to which applicants possess certain personality traits and may be accompanied by a summary statement of the degree to which each individual is likely to be successful in the job for which he or she is applying. Handwriting analysis in personnel selection is very common in Western Europe, where perhaps as many as 75 percent to 80 percent of companies use it in hiring. It is less common in the United States, but some estimates have suggested that more than 2,500 American companies may use handwriting analysis for at least some portion of their workforces.
History and Background of Handwriting Analysis
Published work in handwriting analysis dates as far back as the seventeenth century. The modern science of graphology, however, originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Three separate schools of handwriting analysis are commonly identified by experts. Two of these schools are from late-nineteenth-century Europe, one from France and the other from Germany. A French priest, Michon, originally coined the term “graphology” to describe a science of “fixed signs” in which every handwriting feature, such as slants, loops, and spacing of letters, was associated on a one-to-one basis with a specific personality trait.
The classic school of graphology originated with the late-nineteenth-century work of Germans Wilhelm Preyer and Ludwig Klages. They and others transformed handwriting analysis into a “scientific” form, based on the premise that all motor activity, including handwriting, is performed without conscious thought or by habit and reflects specific stable drives, traits, or tendencies that capture the writer’s personality. The German school does not embrace the “fixed sign” approach of the French graphologists, but proposes that handwriting must be interpreted within the context of individual “rhythms” and that specific handwriting features must be interpreted differently based on the rhythm of the writing sample as a whole and on the analyst’s experience. The German school saw handwriting as an expressive movement similar to commonly used projective techniques in psychology, such as the Rorschach ink blot test.
The third school of handwriting analysis was founded by American M. N. Bunker in the late 1920s and is called graphoanalysis. The graphoanalysis school is widely thought to represent a compromise between the French and German schools. While it relies on the interpretation of unique writing features, the method is based on Gestalt psychology and involves establishing a consistent pattern within the specific writing characteristics to establish an overall pattern of personality. The work of all handwriting analysts is based on many of the same general principles involving the size of letters, words, or numbers, spacing between words and lines, slant of letters, margin size, and pressure on the writing instrument. In graphoanalysis, for example, slant is an indicator of emotional responsiveness. However, different analysts, particularly those trained in different schools of graphology, weigh factors differently, and standards for evaluating handwriting vary.
Reliability and Validity in Handwriting Analysis
The major focus in employee selection is on the ability of selection instruments to predict one or more aspect of job performance. To be able to predict job performance, all selection devices must be able to demonstrate that they are both reliable and valid measures. Reliability refers to the property of a test that allows it to produce consistent results. Where handwriting analysis is concerned, this means that if one’s handwriting sample were evaluated at different points in time or by different evaluators, the results would all be roughly the same. The evidence on the reliability of handwriting analysis is mixed. There is some evidence that graphologists with similar training (such as those trained at the Graphoanalysis Society in Chicago) are somewhat consistent in their interpretations of samples. Other experts question the reliability of handwriting analysis, suggesting considerable variation in interpretations across both schools of handwriting analysis and interpretations of different analysts.
A selection test is useful only to the extent that it has demonstrated validity, defined as the ability to infer or predict some aspect of job performance based on scores on the test. For handwriting analysis, there are two separate but related validity issues. First, handwriting analysis must be shown to be able to validly predict personality clusters, or sets of personality traits. Second, these clusters of general personality traits must be associated with better fit for specific positions or better job performance. The validity of handwriting analysis is determined by both the extent to which graphology accurately measures the personality traits in question and how well those traits relate to some measure of job performance.
Research on handwriting analysis is not as extensive as research on other selection instruments, such as cognitive ability or personality testing, and it suffers from small sample sizes and some lack of rigor. What research does exist, however, suggests that handwriting analysis does not validly predict either personality traits or job performance. In most attempts to demonstrate its validity in predicting personality traits by comparing graphology results to established measures of personality, analysts have not been able to replicate independent measures of personality produced with other personality measures. The ability to predict job performance has been even more disappointing. In virtually all cases, trained handwriting analysts do no better at predicting job performance than do untrained students, nor are their predictions any better than those expected by chance.
Research on graphology suggests that at best, it has only low-to-moderate reliability, and there is little evidence that graphology is accurate in predicting personality traits or that the narrow traits that many analysts infer from handwriting samples correlate with job performance. Despite the lack of evidence of a direct link between handwriting analysis and various measures of job performance, many companies continue to persist in its use. In fact, there is some evidence that the use of handwriting analysis in selection is actually increasing, perhaps because handwriting analysis has face validity to many people. It “makes sense” to them and seems as though it should work. One clearly positive aspect of graphology that is not true of many other devices is that it is not prone to faking, since handwriting samples can be solicited with veiled purpose. Certainly, graphology appears to be more art than science, and there may be some graphologists who through better training, advanced skills, or better intuition may be able to make more accurate predictions than other analysts. The research that does exist, however, provides no support for the hypothesis that handwriting analysis works. For the practicing manager, it appears that the scientific evidence suggests that handwriting analysis should have little, if any, role in the staffing process and that managers should rely on other measures of personality, such as contemporary measures of the Big Five personality instruments.
- Gatewood, R. D. and Field, H. S. 1998. Human Resource Selection. Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press.
- Klimoski, R. J. and Rafaeli, A. 1983. “Inferring Personal Qualities through Handwriting Analysis.” Journal of Occupational Psychology 56:191-202.
- Neter, E. and Ben-Shakhar, G. 1989. “The Predictive Validity of Graphological Inferences: A Meta-analytic Approach.” Personality and Individual Differences 10:737-745.
- Rafaeli, A. and Klimoski, R. J. 1983. “Predicting Sales Success through Handwriting Analysis: An Evaluation of the Effects of Training and Handwriting Sample Content.” Journal of Applied Psychology 68:212-217.
- Thomas, S. L. and Vaught, S. 2001. “The Write Stuff: What the Evidence Says about Using Handwriting Analysis in Hiring.” SAM Advanced Management Journal 66(4):31-35.