How Graphology Fools People

Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.
August 29, 2002

To the casual observer, handwriting analysis enjoys greater plausibility than other occult or pseudoscientific ways of reading personality. Take astrology or palmistry, for instance. It is hard for a thinking person today to imagine how the stars or creases on the palm could affect human behavior. But it seems at least possible that, inasmuch as writing is a form of expressive behavior, it might reveal something about ourselves. After all, our mannerisms and choice of clothing, jewelry, and hair styles seem to do so — at least to some degree. Moreover, because writing and personality are both controlled by the brain, the suggestion that they could be related doesn’t seem inherently absurd. And since both personality and handwriting are undeniably idiosyncratic, many consider it reasonable that one might reflect the other. Nonetheless, despite their surface plausibility each of these arguments is seriously flawed.

Graphologists have largely convinced an uninformed public that their craft is a scientifically respectable way of assessing personality, aptitudes, and predilections. This is reinforced by the unfortunate fact that many large corporations do consult graphologists. Similarly, many people assume that graphology must be legitimate because it has occasionally been accepted in court. And many skeptics have accepted free offers to have their writing analyzed and found, to their surprise, that the portrayal seemed remarkably accurate.

This article deals with each of these areas. Following a brief historical introduction, I shall present the logical and scientific objections to graphology. I shall then attempt to explain why a practice that consistently fails scientific tests can seem so convincing to intelligent people who run across it in everyday settings.

What is Graphology?

Graphology is the allegedly scientific practice of determining people’s psychological, social, occupational, and medical attributes from the configuration of their letters, lines, and paragraphs on a page. Graphologists strenuously deny (though there is evidence to the contrary) that they attend to the contents of the scripts they scrutinize. They claim to reveal character traits and state of health solely from the form and distribution of the writing itself. If graphologists claimed nothing more than that cultured people might write with a cultivated hand, or that stingy people fill every corner of the page to avoid wasting paper, there would be little dispute. But the assertion is not merely that tidy people write neatly (which isn’t always the case anyway)—they claim handwriting reveals the larceny in your heart.

The term “Graphoanalysis” is the registered trademark of a particular school of handwriting analysis, the International Graphoanalysis Society, of Chicago, Illinois. In this chapter “graphology” and “handwriting analysis” will be used interchangeably but “Graphoanalysis” or “Graphoanalyst” will refer only to followers of the Chicago school. Founded in 1929, it is the best-established of the training organizations. It offers mail-order courses, publishes its own journal, and confers official-sounding certification on its graduates. Graphoanalysts are also the most vocal in claiming scientific status while denying that of their rivals [1].

Such backbiting among graphological factions is frequent. There are over thirty graphological societies in the U.S. alone, with many using methods that a proponent says are “not easily combined with other systems.” [2] This lack of standardization is compounded by the fact that many local practitioners make up their own intuitive schemes. While there are some concepts common to most systems of handwriting analysis, there are equally notable disputes as to what the various “signs” mean. Take, for instance, two books by internationally known graphologists that I reviewed: one considers a certain way of crossing t’s indicative of a vicious, sadistic temperament, the other says it’s a sign of a practical joker. Which do you hope is advising your boss?

The History of Graphology

Graphology is a branch of the large, diverse group of practices collectively known as “character reading.” Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by human variability and the uniqueness of the individual. It is on this basis that we apportion life’s richest prizes and most dreadful punishments. Obviously, those whose fates hang in the balance have a strong incentive to present a favorable face to the world, and for that reason, hucksters promising to cut through what is euphemistically called “impression management” have always found an eager clientele. Think of the advantages if potential employers, landlords, spouses, business associates, or courts of law could quickly and accurately reveal “what someone is really like.” At various times, it has been assumed that such a window on anyone’s inner make-up could be gained by interpreting the positions of the stars (astrology), the features of the face (physiognomy), the lines on the hand (palmistry), bumps on the head (phrenology), and the shape and distribution of handwriting (graphology). Although modern graphologists have tried to disavow all links to their occult cousins, handwriting analysis, in its origins, its underlying rationale, and its New Age affiliations, retains obvious ties to these magical character reading methods [1,3,4] Readers seeking a more detailed history of graphology should consult the chapter by Nickell [4] on which the following brief summary is based.

There are ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman, as well as early Jewish and Christian ancestors of graphology, but its modern incarnation can be traced to the speculations of the seventeenth-century Italian physician, Camillo Baldi. The most recognizable forebears of current devotees, however, are to be found among an influential group of Catholic clergy in nineteenth-century France. A disciple of that circle, Abb Jean-Hippolyte Michon, coined the term “graphology” and, in Paris in 1871, founded The Society of Graphology. Michon’s several books remain influential today. He is the progenitor of the so-called “analytic” approach which ascribes specific traits to people based on isolated “signs” in writing, such as placement of dots on i’s and crossbars on t’s. Michon’s student, Crepieux-Jamin, broke with his master to become the founder of what is known today as the “holistic” or “gestalt” approach. Rather than attending to individual elements of letters, etc., Crepieux-Jamin advocated a more intuitive, impressionistic perusal whereby the analyst absorbs an overall “feel” for the writer by a vague sort of “resonance” with the script as a whole. Partisans of the analytic and the holistic approaches have perpetuated this split to the present day.

French graphologists continued to dominate the field until the early twentieth century when they started to be eclipsed by German-speaking authors. At that time, figures such as Preyer, Meyer, Klages, Pulver, and Teltscher began to suggest that writing was a sub-species of expressive movement and that mental processes and emotionality could be read by analyzing this kind of psychomotor behavior. Realizing that the brain is responsible for both psychological traits and the control of writing, they attempted to justify their personality readings with the assertion that “handwriting is brainwriting.” This still remains graphology’s most prevalent defensive cliché (see below).

In the 1930s, the Czech-English graphologist Saudek, attempted to introduce more rigorous, mechanized ways of measuring writing movements. Increasing the precision of measures that are of doubtful value in the first place must rank as a dubious contribution, however. Early in this century, graphological speculation began to emerge in North America. Following Downey in 1919 and the arrival of the European emigre Klara Roman, Americans such as M.N. Bunker [5] gradually came to the fore. In 1929, Bunker founded the International Graphoanalysis Society. Handwriting analysis by all estimates continues to grow in popularity throughout North America and Europe but it seems to enjoy the greatest appeal among employers in France and Israel. In modern China, reading personality from calligraphy seems not to have permeated official circles but it remains a popular folk superstition [3].

The Underlying Rationale

Present-day graphologists maintain that their venerable ancestors have taken graphology well beyond its occult beginnings when itinerant conjurers wandered the countryside practicing the art. Be that as it may, perusal of the latest graphology texts reveals that the seminal concepts remain precisely what they were in the beginning. Claims of scientific improvements notwithstanding, my review of dozens of books touted by well-known graphologists shows that, like all other systems of augury or divination, the underpinnings of graphology remain the ancient principles of sympathetic magic [1]. I should note in passing that it is not encouraging when aspirants to scientific status respond to critics’ requests for the technical treatises of their trade with the same works hawked by popular magazines and New Age booksellers. Asked for supporting evidence, one prominent graphologist referred me to a laudatory article in Playboy. A few pro-graphology articles have made it into refereed journals [6,7], but on balance, they fall far short of establishing the case, theoretically [1] or empirically [8].

The essence of all magical thinking is sympathetic correspondence, i.e., “like begets like.” This is also known in mystical lore as “The Law of Similarity.” If two things can be associated mentally, they allegedly enjoy a certain “sympathy” or “resonance.” Either can then be used to reveal or influence the other via their magical interconnectedness. For example, sympathy can be established through a conceptual link such as ownership. This supposedly allows a psychic to describe someone who owned an object by absorbing the “vibrations” he or she imparted to it. Similar beliefs in mind over matter are apparent among tribes who hope to assure a successful hunt by symbolically “slaying” wooden models of their prey and voodoo priests who think they can injure adversaries by mutilating their effigies.

Astrology provides a classic example of how sympathetic magic is used to ascribe attributes to strangers. As we shall see, the parallels with graphology are striking. Astrology arose in the dim past when observers of the night sky were reminded of crabs, bulls, twins, etc., by various clusters of stars. There was nothing inevitable about those particular associations and different cultures mentally superimposed different objects on the same constellations. Nonetheless, for historical reasons, the currently accepted ones have survived [9]. In essence, astrology boils down to the following: (a) The stellar configuration reminds me of a bull (i.e., “Taurus”); (b) Bulls are plodding, stubborn, and obdurate; and (c) Therefore, those born with this constellation in the appropriate position are condemned, by sympathetic infusion of these bull-like qualities, to grow up to be dull, loutish drudges as well.

Elsewhere [1] I have presented numerous examples to show that very latest graphological celebrities still rely on these same principles of sympathetic magic to derive a writer’s attributes from his or her script. Graphologists have done their best to disguise this fact by embedding their speculations in modern-sounding psychobabble, but one need only compare their “signs” with the traits they supposedly denote to see that the basis of the ascriptions is entirely allegorical. Since my critique appeared, I have debated many graphologists; none has been able to refute this claim. Space permits me to provide only a few examples of graphological augury here (for complete citations and verbatim excerpts, see my critique [1]. The following are selected from texts highly recommended by practicing graphologists.

The founders of every school of graphology began with the implicit assumption that whatever metaphors the features of an individual’s script bring to mind are necessarily descriptive of the writer as well. This kind of free association and symbolic interpretation underlies all divining practices [10]. This remains as true of graphology today as it was when ancient oracles foretold the fates of kings by assuming that mental associations triggered by the shapes of animal entrails would be re-enacted in the affairs of the realm. In another old auguring practice, molybdomancy, the oracle would drop molten lead on a flat surface and interpret the shape it assumed as it solidified—the blob, it seems, magically adopts the shape of things to come. After perusing the following examples, you can decide for yourself whether graphology has really abandoned its roots in divination.

Note the allegorical thinking in these representative samples culled from graphology textbooks and articles. Wide spacing between words supposedly denotes someone who does not mix easily and is therefore prone to be isolated and lonely. Conversely, writers who crowd their words together are so desperate for companionship that they are indiscriminate in choosing their friends. Writers whose lines drift upward are “uplifting” optimists while those whose lines sag downward are pessimists who constantly feel they are being dragged down. People who draw the upper, middle, and lower sections of their letters equally large have “a good sense of proportion.” Those with variable letter slants are unpredictable, or, as one graphologist put it, they are people with “changing inclinations.” Writers of unusually large capital I’s have large egos and those who write big, “think big.” A past president of a major US graphological association asserts that if a married woman pens her signature with larger capitals on her given name than on her husband’s surname, she betrays an unhappy marriage. One of Canada’s most prominent handwriting gurus describes a writer with crosses on his t’s that reminded her of whips, thus revealing his sadistic nature. On the health front, my informants claimed that low writing pressure signals low blood pressure and ragged upper loops are diagnostic of heart disease. And a break between upper and lower portions of letters is a sure sign of back problems. My favorite ascription, though, is the widely held belief in the graphological community that large, bulbous loops on g’s, y’s, etc.—i.e., ones that dangle lasciviously below the lines—reveal a strong sex drive. Divination by sympathetic magic, or what? At least one can barbecue the ox after examining its entrails.

The Consequences

All the foregoing would be touchingly naive, even comical, were it not for the fact that these self- styled experts offer advice where it can seriously affect people’s reputations, well-being, and economic status. For instance, in Vancouver, British Columbia, a prominent graphologist offered to identify, secretly, for preemptive action by the school board, the actual and potential sexual molesters in the local teaching ranks [1]. Others have advised financial institutions on the credit-worthiness of borrowers and many civic governments and large corporations admit to consulting handwriting analysts for pre-employment screening. Graphologists also say they are competent to help select marriage partners and there have been press reports that at least one member of Canada’s National Parole Board was privately consulting her graphologist sister to help select those prisoners who were safe to release. Similarly, a judge in Denver, Colorado, was reported to have sentenced a convict to undergo graphotherapy (see below and [11]).

Graphologists with whom I have dealt have had no compunctions about predicting which employees would steal from the corporation, betray proprietary secrets, or become closet alcoholics or drug abusers. I was told by one graphologist that he has a “100% foolproof way” of determining who will become violent on the job. Handwriting analysts have offered to expose philandering spouses from writing samples, and where the police will take them seriously, they are eager to finger supposed criminals. One graphology company offers courses for therapists on how to tell if writers have repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Most shocking of all, many graphologists advertise, as a unique benefit of their services, that inquisitive third parties can submit a sample of writing for analysis and act upon the results, without the writer ever knowing the evaluation took place.

Many graphologists are not been shy about broadcasting their potentially damaging assessments. For instance, when I have asked for evidence that graphology works, I have frequently been shown analyses with names still attached. When my brother and I assisted the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association in trying to dissuade a nearby municipality from continuing to use a graphologist’s services, the graphologist, in defending himself before city council, displayed a shocking disregard for the standards of confidentiality we have the right to expect when personnel matters are discussed in public.

Because the attributions are based on symbolism and free association, different schools disagree about which signs are tokens of which traits (just as literary critics endlessly debate the “real meaning” of symbolism in poetry). Thus, you as a prospective employee or borrower could have your reputation blackened if you were unfortunate enough to be secretly assessed by a graphologist of one persuasion but if, by the luck of the draw, your “true nature” was divined by a disciple of another school, you might have sailed through with ease.

Obviously, when the life prospects of unsuspecting people are involved, the use of what would otherwise be a harmless party amusement, ceases to be a laughing matter. To our dismay, when we asked two lawyers (Robert Carswell [12] from Canada and John Reagh [13] from the U.S.) to suggest what constitutional and statutory provisions might apply, they agreed that, in both countries, citizens enjoy very few protections if a private employer decides to consult a graphologist. (The picture is slightly better in some jurisdictions if government hiring is involved.) We can take action against those who discriminate against Blacks, Jews, or women, but it is apparently acceptable if corporations refuse a position or a loan to someone whose only sin is crossing t’s in an odd way.

What do Graphologists Claim?

The vast majority of handwriting analysts are self-taught from popular books or trained by self- accredited correspondence schools or unaccredited night school classes. “Watch one, do one, teach one” could be the motto of the field. Although I could not find a single reputable textbook in psychological testing that treated graphology with anything but disdain, graphologists still claim to be a misunderstood and unfairly maligned branch of psychology. Few graphologists, in my experience, have had anything close to an adequate background in psychological measurement or modern personnel methods. Though they claim persecution from a hostile establishment bent on preserving its turf, graphologists seem oblivious to the fact that if their techniques really worked, and the orthodox professionals were as venal as they claim, the licensed practitioners would long ago have stolen these powerful tools and muscled out the self-credentialed amateurs. Sensitive to their resemblance to fortune tellers, graphologists claim they do not foretell the future. But what conceivable value would there be in describing a stranger if it were not assumed that the description would predict how he or she would act in the future?

There are few areas of human nature and mental or physical health that graphologists do not feel competent to assess. That a single technique could apply in so many different areas flies in the face of almost everything in modern research on psychological measurement. Such grandiosity and ignorance of relevant research is almost grounds in itself for dismissing graphology.

Graphologists claim to discern temperament (e.g., self-confidence, optimism, profligacy, complacency, or an explosive temper). They also believe writing reveals mental qualities such as intelligence, reasoning ability, and intuitiveness, and social traits such as introversion, friendliness, and dominance. In the workplace, they claim to rate leadership, reliability, diligence, attention to detail, propensity to be a team-player, and far, far more. On the moral and ethical side, graphologists pass judgement on people’s honesty, trustworthiness, generosity, piety, cruelty, jealousy, criminal tendencies, etc.

How to determine marital suitability occupies a large portion of almost every graphology text. Sexuality is also supposed to have a multitude of written signs. Although graphologists typically demand to know the gender of the writer in advance, they are happy to pronounce on his or her secret sexual orientation and/or deviance, as well as promiscuity and capacity for intimacy. Could it be that they want to know gender in advance because it is too simple to check the accuracy of such a guess? (Ironically, untrained novices can discern the gender of writers in an anonymous sample with approximately 70% accuracy.) Probably for similar reasons, handwriting analysts will not guess the writer’s age, but are happy to rate slippery attributes like “maturity” that offer plenty of room to fudge if challenged.

The alleged ability to derive medical diagnoses from writing has been alluded to already. As I have explained elsewhere, certain medical problems do affect writing, but in not in the way the graphologists assume [14]. In the psychological sphere, graphologists claim everything from neuroticism and general stability to psychoses, phobias, depression, psychopathy, and a host of other clinical symptoms are all there for the asking.

Many of the aforementioned categories are combined when graphologists approach the criminal justice system. They claim to expose actual or potential criminal behavior as well as deceitfulness, lack of self-control, violence proneness, and sociopathic tendencies. Graphologists say they can help the police apprehend suspects and aid the courts in selecting juries and determining both guilt and appropriate punishment. They also say they can determine likelihood of recidivism and suitability for parole. McNichol’s highly touted 1991 textbook, for example, provides exercises on how to spot a murderer, a babysitter who might use drugs, and a shop owner who cheats his customers [15]. Marne’s Sex and Crime in Handwriting offers numerous ways of exposing different kinds of criminals [16]. Unfortunately, the betraying signs are all recognized after-the-fact in the writing of previously convicted felons. Marne, as usual, offers no evidence that she could reliably identify the guilty parties in an anonymous pile composed of scripts of convicts and upright citizens (and providing, of course, the contents of the scripts contained no useful clues, which they typically do).

It is bad enough that one might lose a coveted position on the basis of bogus advice, but to have one’s standing in the community, and possibly even freedom, jeopardized in this way is frightening indeed. How would you feel being branded a thief because you have “desire-for-possession hooks” on your S’s? Bunker [5], the founder of Graphoanalysis, the self-proclaimed most scientific school of graphology, seriously contends that these “acquisitive hooks” reveal a disposition to snag others’ belongings.

The most transparently absurd claim in the whole field, one so bizarre that not even all graphologists endorse it, is that of “graphotherapeutics.” According to believers, not only does handwriting unerringly reveal personal attributes, but if you should dislike any of the traits it discloses, you can expunge them by removing their diagnostic signs from your script [17]. The oh-so-scientific Bunker [5] devotes a whole chapter to showing how “changing handwriting will change personality.” This merely underscores the contention that sympathetic magic is the real rationale behind graphology, for the essence of magical thinking is that causes resemble their effects and are therefore interchangeable. Case in point: graphotherapists insist that personality causes writing causes personality. What better evidence of this could we seek than Bunker’s [5] assertion: “He [Bunker’s client] had made a few changes in his writing—not major changes, and he had achieved results.” In this case, the writer, with minor retrenchments in his penmanship, was miraculously redeemed from his previous persona, that of a suicidal spendthrift. Here we see another common attribute of crackpot science, namely that effects are posited which are dramatically disproportionate to the magnitude of their alleged causes. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In philosophy, any doctrine can be dispatched merely by showing it to be internally inconsistent. Graphology is so vague and self-contradictory that devotees have ample room to explain away blatant errors. On the one hand (no pun intended), they say writing is such a sensitive psychological barometer that it varies, moment-to-moment, in response to subtle mood changes. But in the next breath, they will tell you writing is so impervious to change that you cannot hide your true nature by intentionally falsifying your script—the real you will still shine through. Even though normal and disguised script from the same person look different, they still denote the same traits for the graphologist; but if those same disparities were found in the scripts of two different people the graphologist would say they were indicative of different traits. Graphologists also reply to those who say their writing varies in response to haste, writing posture, desire to make an impression, etc., that, though the writing is obviously different on those occasions, it still denotes the same personal attributes. If you try to deceive the graphologist by disguising your handwriting, your rigid personality stubbornly keeps the graphological signs intact, but if you change your writing at the behest of a graphotherapist, your malleable personality will realign itself to reflect the new, improved script. One manual for aspiring graphologists I reviewed cautioned neophytes not to become discouraged, because not everyone with a given sign has the suggested trait and not everyone with the trait has the sign. How could the system ever fail? This ability to be all things to all people makes graphology essentially unfalsifiable. On that ground alone, it can be excluded from the house of science.

Critiques of the “Official” Rationales for Graphology

Before presenting graphology’s dismal record in empirical tests, let me first dispose of several oft-heard rationalizations for why handwriting analysis ought to work.

Handwriting is brainwriting. Yes it is, but walking is also controlled by the brain, so should we henceforth refer to it as “brainstepping,” as Karnes and Leonard [11] wryly suggest? Why would we think that just because something is controlled by the brain, it necessarily correlates with any other traits, aptitudes or propensities? That is a claim to be supported with evidence, not glibly assumed. Vomiting has an associated center in the brain too. Does that justify using individual regurgitation styles to assess someone’s intimate make-up?

In an earlier chapter [14], I maintained that research into the neural substrates of writing and personality actually supplies some of the best arguments against graphology. For instance, brain damage can alter either writing or personality, independently. There is no evidence that if a head injury affects personality, writing will necessarily change too—as it should if graphology were valid. Furthermore, there is no reason to suspect that the brain mechanisms responsible for writing and those for temperament and aptitudes could be linked in the lockstep fashion necessary if graphology were to be taken seriously. Research on the physiological correlates of personality shows that individual traits are not localized in circumscribed brain areas that could conceivably be mapped, one-to-one, onto the minute muscle programs that create particular writing features. In the same chapter, I also noted that the graphologists’ naive notions of how the brain determines personality (not to mention their outmoded conceptions of personality itself [18] are virtually identical to those of the discredited system of phrenology. Graphology would require a brain organization akin to that posited by the phrenologists to make it remotely plausible. For this necessary but unlikely brain organization to exist, it would either need to have evolved (and thus be inherited), or be acquired early in life. Either way, the implications for graphology are daunting.

If natural selection shaped brain structure such that it could allow connection of every minute character trait with a unique writing movement, graphologists should be able to suggest what possible survival advantages this profligate use of biological resources might have conferred. So far, no graphologist I am aware of has even realized that this is a serious impediment to scientific acceptance of graphology. Moreover, since the ability to write is, at most, 6,000 years old and the brain evolved to essentially its modern form eons before that, the putative circuits that would eventually link personality and writing must have evolved for some other purpose. What was this stupendous number of presumably dormant neural pathways selected for and what were the selective pressures that pushed the brain in that odd direction so long before humans got around to inventing writing?

If, instead, one views expression of personality in writing as an acquired skill, the difficulties for graphology are equally grave. Since writing is obviously a learned behavior, how does the brain unerringly modify every learned writing movement to make it congruent with each of the numerous traits a child will grow up to express? What kind of mechanism could conceivably ensure that everyone who is destined to be devious will acquire the same neural program, say, to make l-loops in the same way? Do parents ever say, “Susie, you are obviously gifted with leadership talents, be sure to form your capitals in this way, instead of the way your teacher showed you”? Writing also varies across language groups. What differences in early experience in the various linguistic communities ensure that the infant’s brain will develop into the appropriate variant so that it will attach emerging personality traits to quite different writing movements if the child happens to learn the Chinese as opposed to the Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, or Roman alphabets? Writing in all of these scripts admittedly becomes personalized, but that individuality arises from biomechanical factors quite different from, and far more interesting than, the graphologists’ parochial conjectures [14].

In sum, the graphologists’ “brainwriting” argument is true but irrelevant to their claims. This rationale would only be necessary if there were a need to explain a proven relationship between writing and other personal attributes. Unfortunately for graphology, much empirical research, reviewed below, says such correlations are illusory in the first place.

Writing is individualized and personality is unique, so each must reflect the other. Aside from the obvious logical flaw in this argument, why should we accept, without good evidence, that any two admittedly idiosyncratic aspects of a person will necessarily bear any particular relationship to one another? True, forgeries have been exposed and writers of extortion notes convicted on the basis of distinctive penmanship, but does that imply that each of these identifiable writing features is reliably tied to another unique attribute of the author (in that person alone, not to mention everyone else who writes similarly)? Faces are sufficiently different to serve as personal identification on a driver’s license, but the state still requires that you take the road test before certifying your driving skills. At one time, though, it was believed that facial features could reveal other personal characteristics. The pseudoscience of physiognomy held there were uniquely honest faces and criminal faces, generous faces and miserly faces. None but the woolliest New Ager could swallow this today. To show that mere uniqueness is no proof that every noticeable earmark is necessarily emblematic of something else, a colleague of mine relates the following story [11]. As a quirky hobby, he trained himself to identify individuals from the distinctive sound of their footsteps in the hallway leading to his office. Many a visitor was un-nerved by being welcomed by name, long before he or she came into view. Here is a subtle, but reliably detectable, personal feature. It may be good for winning bets and amazing one’s friends, but would any reasonable person seriously think that this toe-tapping signature would be a good basis for hiring an employee, rejecting a mate, or accusing someone of pilfering from the stockroom?

Writing is a form of expressive movement, so it should reflect our personalities. Elsewhere, I have reviewed the literature on expressive movements and facial expressions and shown why attempts to shore up graphology by appealing to these data fall short [14]. While it is true that there are legitimate studies linking a few global aspects of temperament to certain gestural styles, these data offer no comfort to the graphologists who attempt to ride on their coattails. The kinds of personal styles found to be loosely related to expressive body movements are much more general than the narrow traits the graphologists claim to infer from writing. A tendency to be forceful, irascible, or domineering might be readable from body language but, even there, the correlations are too weak to be useful in making the kind of detailed ascriptions graphologists attempt. And no reputable scientist has ever suggested that something as abstruse as piety or good business sense is any more likely to be encoded in gestures than, say, vegetarianism. Nonetheless, graphologists proudly note that handwriting analysis is mentioned in Allport and Vernon’s 1933 classic, Studies in Expressive Movement. They are less quick to tell us, however, that in the estimate of those respected psychologists, “…the [graphological] terms employed often seem to obscure rather than reveal the personality.” [19].

Similarly, facial expressions may sometimes betray a lie as it is being uttered, but no competent expert thinks everybody who tends to be duplicitous has a gestural tag for this or any other general inclination of the sort graphologists claim to detect. Moreover, the body and facial movements studied by credible researchers are biologically-based social signals. They are unlearned and convey useful information only because they are the same for everyone. Writing is quite the opposite, a learned skill that graphologists think mirrors individuality because it is different for everyone. And good actors are quite good at faking body and facial signals, something allegedly impossible with writing, according to graphologists. Perhaps most damaging of all to the graphologists’ cause is the evidence that such information as can be gleaned from unconscious movements and facial expressions is readable by anyone without formal training. There is no need to pay anyone a fee to interpret what they mean.

The police and courts use graphology, so it must be valid. I am tempted to say, “Ronald Reagan used astrology, so it must be valid” and leave it at that, but there are a few other useful lessons to be derived here. Yes, unfortunately, some misguided officials have employed handwriting analysts in forensic settings, but the practice is not as widespread as graphologists imply. As a group, police officers, lawyers, and judges are no more or less prone to erroneous beliefs than anyone else. Faced with difficult decisions where no other method offers certainty (an ideal breeding ground for superstitions), some in the criminal justice system occasionally get swept up in hopeful nonsense, just like the rest of us. The vast majority do not endorse graphology or psychics, however. Graphologists occasionally offer their services to the police and get a polite hearing, as any citizen is entitled to. And for reasons related to the subjective validation effect, discussed below, the recipients may well have been more impressed than the performance warrants. Of course, like psychics who claim to solve crimes, a few chance hits and reliance on conventional clues, boosted by a bit of embellishment and unabashed self-promotion, can establish a high but unearned reputation.

The artificially inflated reputation enjoyed by handwriting analysis is largely due to the tendency to confuse the profession of graphologist with that of a questioned document examiner (QDE). As Dale Beyerstein [20] has observed, nonsense often rides piggyback on sensible knowledge, and graphology, though it bears only the most superficial resemblance to scientific document examination, misappropriates the latter’s well-deserved prestige [21]. Both fields analyze handwriting, but that is where the similarity ends.

A QDE is a scientifically-trained forensic investigator who also has considerable knowledge of the history of papers, inks, writing implements, systems of penmanship, and styles of expression [22]. QDEs are respected experts who are frequently consulted by the police and the courts. Their modus operandi is quite different from that of a graphologist, however. The job of a QDE is to establish the provenance and authenticity of documents, some of which are handwritten. Unlike a graphologist, a legitimate QDE would never attempt to discern the personality of the writer from the script he or she examines. Where appropriate, the QDE will compare the writing in disputed documents to known samples from the hand of the putative author. Thus a typical question for a QDE might be, “Is this an authentic letter from Mozart to his patron or a clever forgery? Or, “Did the defendant in the dock write this ransom note?” By comparison, a typical question for a graphologist might be, “Does this writer harbor a secret resentment of authority?”

If need be, a QDE will chemically analyze the ink, microscopically examine the fibers and watermarks of the paper, and look for distinctive marks left by different kinds of writing instruments. In addition, he or she might compare grammar, style, and punctuation to social or historical norms, all for the purpose of establishing when, where, and by whom a given document was written. The exposure of the infamous “Hitler Diaries” as forgeries showed QDEs working at their best [23]. As consultants in litigation or historical disputes they are asked only to rate the probability that a given person wrote the document in question, not to pass on the guilt, innocence, or any other psychological trait of the alleged author. That a few QDE’s also practice graphology on the side also leads to confusion in the public mind. Most QDEs are just as unhappy at being confused with a graphologist as an astronomer would be if mistaken for an astrologer.

Hard-nosed personnel managers swear by graphologists’ usefulness in selecting employees. Some do. Most do not. Regardless, there are many reasons, other than the validity of graphology, that could account for these relatively rare endorsements [11,24]. First, there is ample reason to believe that, even if they are not aware of it, graphologists use other, non- graphological clues that could highlight the better candidates. For instance, the contents of handwritten application letters are rich in useful biographical information. Although graphologists claim to ignore these leads, there is evidence to the contrary [25,26]. Also, graphologists often chat up the managers who consult them to see which candidates the employers are already leaning toward. Thus the graphologist is often privy to conventional information about the applicants and, in many cases, merely reinforces the managers’ intuitions. Employers are often interested, as much as anything else, in this kind of reassurance that their hunches are correct. This helps soothe the unease that surrounds the inherently error-prone practice of hiring and the high costs of a mistake. Graphologists can supply this peace at mind because they make comforting but highly inflated claims that ethical personnel experts would not and could not make [24]. And, finally, in a corporate hierarchy, where covering one’s backside is a fundamental imperative, it is also prudent to have someone like a graphologist to blame if the risky procedure of selecting an employee turns out badly.

Another unearned source of satisfaction with graphology stems from the fact that employers rarely give the scripts of all applicants to a graphologist—hat would be too expensive. The graphologist usually sees only the scripts of short-listed applicants, those already selected on the basis of superior education, work experience, supervisors’ recommendations, etc. Thus it is likely that everyone in this much-reduced pool would be at least adequate for the job. Because the rejects are not given a chance to show what they could do if hired, we have no way of knowing whether they would have performed as well as or better than the applicant recommended by the graphologist. And, of course, the mere fact that a graphologist has anointed the successful candidate may affect later appraisal of his or her job performance. Much research on so-called “halo effects” shows that a recommendation from a trusted source can make average performance seem better than it is and can also make supervisors more apt to excuse less than adequate performance as a temporary aberration. The vast literature on “cognitive dissonance” shows that people who have staked their reputations or significant amounts of money on a course of action, especially if others have questioned its advisability, have strong psychological motives to interpret the outcome as favorable, even in the face of contrary evidence [27].

In scientific tests of the ability of graphologists to recognize job-relevant traits, it is possible to control for these spurious sources of consumer satisfaction. Klimoski contrasts the methods of scientifically-based personnel selection with those of graphologists. He conducted many studies designed and carried out with the collaboration of eminent graphologists who approved all procedures in advance. In controlled tests in the workplace, handwriting analysis has fared very poorly [1,8,25,28,29].

Graphologists must have noticed over the centuries that certain kinds of people write in certain ways. They might have, but they didn’t. Systematically tabulating any relationships between personality and writing is the way a scientific investigator would have proceeded but, as shown above, there is overwhelming evidence that graphology has always followed the rules of divination rather than those of modern personality research [ ]. In fact, as Dean, Kelly, Saklofske, and Furnham [26] forcefully argue, the founders of graphology couldn’t possibly have kept track of the huge number of independently varying combinations of writing and personality traits necessary to be able to extract any such patterns, had they existed in the first place. As they also point out, that is because:

  1. Graphological effects are too small to have been reliably observed.
  2. Graphological features are too numerous to be reliably combined.
  3. Assessment of the match between graphology and the person suffers from too many biases to allow valid

Psychologists have shown that, without sophisticated aids, human cognitive abilities are not capable of tracking the interrelationships of that many variables simultaneously. As it turns out, modern mathematical techniques that would reveal such patterns find none, but even if they had been there, graphologists did not really go about looking for them systematically. The intuitive approach they did adopt would have been incapable of extracting any possible signals from the noise.

It works. Research shows that when the ascriptions of a tea leaf reader, palmist, astrologer, or graphologist turn out by chance to fit, this will count far more than it should in supporting the belief that “it works” (see the “the subjective validation effect,” discussed below). If someone asserts that potato- eating improves your tennis game and you find that your next five superior opponents recently ate potatoes, it hardly clinches the case, does it? But clients and graphologists alike tend to be impressed by this kind of “hit”. They rarely look to see how many other people have the written sign but not the trait, and how many have the personal attribute without its graphological indicator. Graphologists rely almost exclusively on anecdotal reports and personal testimonials that lack these essential comparisons. For reasons that will become apparent later in this chapter, such affirmations are worthless as scientific evidence. Research into so-called heuristic biases shows how common judgmental shortcuts often lead us to espouse bogus ideas and commodities [30]. When competent, impartial outsiders tally up both the hits and the misses, the seemingly impressive track record of graphology evaporates. Let us now turn to that evidence.

The Empirical Eidence For and Against Graphology

My task in summarizing the extensive scientific research on graphology has been made quite easy by the superb efforts of Geoffrey Dean [8], who has carried out an exhaustive review of the literature. In any area of scientific controversy, a single study practically never decides the issue. It is only through the patient accumulation of many experiments, replicated by different investigators with converging methodologies, that a dependable pattern will emerge. Until recently, the most common way of trying to settle disputes in contentious areas was essentially to take a “box score”—i.e., so many studies for conclusion X and so many against—the preponderance carrying the day. Not all empirical findings should count equally in such a tally, however. Those studies with larger sample sizes, better methodology, and less noisy data ought to carry heavier weight in the grand adjudication. Fortunately, there has emerged a way of factoring such considerations into the overall assessment, and thereby drawing more reliable conclusions from multiple studies on a given topic. It is called “meta-analysis.” Dean’s review of the empirical research on graphology applied this mathematical technique to assess the cumulative effect of over 200 published studies from numerous countries and in several languages [8].

In deciding whether graphology really works, Dean addressed questions about both its reliability and validity. In the case of reliability, we are asking about the consistency or repeatability with a given measurement technique. I.e., if an operator repeats a measurement, or different operators use it on the same object, will the results concur? The former is called “test-retest reliability,” the latter, “inter-rater reliability.” Imagine a rubber yardstick that gave variable results on each attempt—how useful would such an implement be? In technical terms, we would say that it had low reliability. Reliability is an essential, but not sufficient, condition for acceptance of a measurement method.

Unless a measuring instrument is reliable, it cannot have validity which is defined as the ability of the technique, test, etc., to measure what its proponents say it measures. A mercury thermometer provides a valid measure of mean kinetic energy, for instance, but it would lack validity as a measure of gravitational pull. A thermometer is reliable in that, all things being equal, repeated observations usually produce very close to the same result. That reliability, by itself, is no guarantee of validity can be seen from the following. If I assert that counting the number of moles on your back is a good way to estimate your intelligence, I could probably get roughly the same total on successive counts (i.e., the measure has reliability), but you would be right to ask me for evidence of its validity as an index of intelligence. To satisfy you, I would need to present independent confirmation that variability in mole density in the population at large correlates well with accepted criteria of intelligence. Obviously, this it would not do, so the measure lacks validity.

With respect to graphology, reliability within and across practitioners trained by the same school has been tolerable in some, but not all, studies. I.e., sometimes when the same sample of writing was submitted twice it came back with more or less the same profile after two perusals by the same graphologist or from both tries by two different graphologists [24] but see Goldberg [31] and Dean [8] for examples where even this minimum requirement was not met). Since the various graphological schools often disagree, one would not expect the same result from followers of different systems. But even if graphology in the hands of well-practiced disciples of the same school gives the same answer on repeated assessments of the same script, is that sufficient reason to believe that it will be accurate when it is used to predict your degree of friendliness, honesty, creativity, or devotion to an organization?

Computing scientists constantly warn us about the GIGO problem: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” In other words, no matter how accurately a computer might follow its program, if you feed it meaningless input, it will methodically grind out equally inane results. Consistently-processed rubbish is still rubbish. Increasingly, graphologists are appealing to the unwary by advertising that they now use computers, hoping by adopting these trappings of science to acquire a patina of respectability. Computerization may increase the reliability of graphological attributions, but if the raw materials of an analysis (slants, pressures, flourishes, i-dots, etc.) are not valid indicators of personality traits, then the fact that the computer derives a similar portrait of the client on multiple tries is of little comfort. And that, in a nutshell, is the question: “Are graphological ‘signs’ valid indicators of their supposedly correlated personality traits or aptitudes?”

In order to answer questions about validity, one must have a criterion for the trait that is supposedly indicated by the measure. If we are evaluating a test that claims to predict superior sales ability, for instance, the criterion might be the agent’s total annual sales or the number of deals closed per number of contacts. An acceptable test would have to show not only that those who ace the test tend to be high on such criteria but also that those who do poorly end up at the bottom of the sales charts [24]. In his worldwide search for empirical evaluations of graphology, Dean [8] unearthed more than 200 studies that had unambiguous criteria of this sort and were acceptable with respect to sample sizes, experimental controls, statistical analyses, etc. After subjecting these studies to a meta-analysis, Dean showed that graphologists have failed unequivocally to demonstrate the validity or reliability of their art for predicting work performance, aptitudes, or personality. Graphology thus fails according to the standards a genuine psychological test must pass before it can ethically be released for use on an unsuspecting public.

Dean found that no particular school of graphology fared better than any other, belying the smug claims of Graphoanalysis that it is scientifically superior to its rivals. In fact, no graphologist of any stripe was able to show reliably better performance than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials. In the vast majority of studies, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

Perusing Dean’s accumulated corpus of studies, an interesting relationship emerges. The better a given study is, methodologically, and the more stringent the peer review process of the journal in which it is published, the more likely it is that the results will be unfavorable to graphology. For this reason, it is not surprising that the majority of studies that find any merit whatever in graphology are published by graphologists themselves—in promotional pamphlets, their own proprietary journals, or the for-profit popular press. When pro-graphology pieces occasionally make it into scientific journals they are typically the organs that have the lowest rejection rates and charge the authors for the privilege of publishing.

Of course, graphologists hotly contest the foregoing conclusions, claiming that the tests that belittle their abilities are unfair and irrelevant. The fact remains, however, that, in many of the best studies, graphologists gave prior approval to the tasks they would be asked to perform and the assessment criteria; i.e., they were willing participants until the negative results became known. Often graphological societies nominated their best to represent them in these tests. In one rigorous series of studies, by Klimoski and his colleagues, the graphologists were so confident they would excel that they even funded the projects. They agreed at the outset that the assigned tasks were a fair approximation of what they do in their everyday practices. Only when the results turned out disastrously for them did the graphologists begin to quibble about the fairness of the tests, at one point even going so far as to threaten legal action to suppress publication of the results. Summarizing his own research and that of many others, Klimoski concludes, “…a manager receiving solicitations for graphological services or seeing assistance in personnel decision making would be wise to heed the American credo, ‘Caveat Emptor’—let the buyer beware.” [24:263]

Why Graphology Seems to Work—The “Barnum Effect”

Faced with the consistently poor showing of handwriting analysis in scientific tests, the typical response from graphologists is, “I don’t need to prove anything to you. I know it works and I have hundreds of satisfied customers to prove it.” Of course, this is the same rejoinder I have received from every tea leaf and tarot card reader I’ve debated as well. People pay good money and come back for more—they must be receiving good value, mustn’t they? Not necessarily.

If graphology’s track record in large-scale, carefully controlled tests is as poor as critics say it is, how could so many intelligent, well-educated people still believe it has merit? As mentioned earlier, the power of personal experience often overshadows reams of tables and graphs when people try to make complex judgements about the world [30]. Hope and uncertainty evoke powerful psychological processes that keep all occult and pseudoscientific character readers in business. In everyday settings, their pronouncements can seem remarkably specific and telling, even though they are not. The spurious feeling that something deeply informative has been revealed in an astrological, graphological, or psychic reading arises from a kind of cognitive slippage that has come to be known as “the Barnum effect.” Its other names are the “subjective validation effect” or the “personal validation effect.” The more colorful appellation recalls the famous American showman, P.T. Barnum, who advertised, “I have a little something for everyone.”

As many studies have demonstrated, people invariably interpret vague, positive generalizations that are true, in some form, of nearly everyone as if they applied specifically to the particulars of their own lives [26]. Have you ever opened a fortune cookie that didn’t somehow apply to you? The fascinating thing is that we “read in” the specifics with practically no awareness that they arise from our own associative processes, rather than the character reader’s insights. This is not mere gullibility. It stems, instead, from the overapplication of one of our most useful cognitive skills—the ability to make sense out of the barrage of disconnected information we face daily. In fact, we become so good at filling in to make a reasonable scenario out of disjointed input that we sometimes make sense out of nonsense. Human nature is so complex and individual behavior so varied, there is almost always something in our background to fit a reader’s pronouncement. Psychologists have learned a great deal about the social and cognitive variables that make Barnum-type generalities seem so penetrating and personally relevant [11,26,32-34 ].

The Barnum effect is so powerful that an informal demonstration of any personality test, fringe or orthodox, is all but useless. Our enquiring minds will automatically embellish the bare bones of such output to make it seem self-referential. Once again, this is not feeblemindedness; in fact, more intelligent people are more facile at inserting these extrapolations. For that reason, a proper test of any character reading scheme will need to control for this false sense of accuracy. Thus, instead of simply asking clients if the palm reader or astrologer has accurately portrayed them, a proper test would first have readings done for a large number of clients and then remove the names from the profiles (coding them so they could later be matched to their rightful owners). After all clients had read all of the anonymous personality sketches, each would be asked to pick the one that described him or her best. If the reader has actually included enough uniquely-pertinent material, members of the group, on average, should be able to exceed chance in choosing their own from the pile. No occult or pseudoscientific character reading method, graphology included, has successfully passed such a test.

Additional evidence that the apparent accuracy of nonscientific character readings is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder can be found in many studies (see references above) that led people to think they were receiving a reading done specifically for them. When experimental subjects are asked to rate how well the resulting profile describes them, they overwhelmingly endorse its contents although, unbeknownst to them, they are all given the identical astrologer or graphologist’s report. In one recent study, subjects read statements about other people produced by a certified Graphoanalyst and an number of “Barnum statements,” intentionally written to be so vague as to be applicable to virtually everyone [11]. The subjects rated the Graphoanalyst’s descriptions of strangers as being just as good descriptors of themselves as the intentionally-vague Barnum statements. When a group is given random profiles from valid psychological tests under the same conditions, they do not rate them as good a match to themselves because legitimate diagnostic tools do produce profiles that are not equally applicable to everyone.


In this essay I have argued that graphology, despite its scientific pretensions, remains mired in its occult past. I have shown why the graphologists’ favorite justifications are inadequate and alluded to many well-controlled studies which have found that handwriting analysts, denied non-graphological clues about their clients, do no better than chance in describing them. The clients, on the other hand, cannot exceed chance either when asked to select their own from a stack of anonymous graphological profiles. Despite graphology’s poor showing in these well-controlled tests, both practitioners and an a goodly portion of the public at large steadfastly continue to believe it works. The latter sections of this chapter were devoted to the interesting cognitive biases that have kept graphology alive by giving customers the strong illusion that it is revealing and accurate when it is not. If graphology cannot legitimately claim to be a scientific means of measuring human talents and leanings, what is it really? In short, it is a pseudoscience.

Pseudosciences are thinly disguised occultisms that have the trappings and usurp the prestige of science but lack the attitudes, the methods, and the repeatable findings that define a real science [35]. Pseudosciences have a number of telltale signs. They are typically isolated from the legitimate scientific disciplines that relate to their subject matter. Devotees are apt to be proud of their lack of orthodox credentials and hostile toward an “establishment” they see as ignoring if not outright persecuting them. They claim powerful but secret techniques that only work for believers, but frown upon skepticism and demands for proof. Pseudoscientists tend to shun mathematical analyses and cling to anecdotal data. Testimonials from satisfied customers substitute for rigorous tests. The idea of a simple control group is foreign to their way of thinking.

Pseudosciences are overrun by cranks who are not only ignorant of the theory and data in relevant scientific fields but claim fantastic results that run counter to well-established research. Often these putative effects would be highly desirable if true, but are postulated without plausible theories and mechanisms to account for why they might occur. What passes for theory in a pseudoscience is typically so vague that it is virtually impossible to test.

Such fields encourage ad hoc assumptions to explain away negative findings. In a word, they are unfalsifiable—nothing could possibly count against the theory. For instance, when graphologist Jane Paterson found that Ghandi failed to exhibit the large writing she said was typical of great leaders, she explained that his writing showed that he was modest and preferred to lead from a position of inferiority. Special pleading, after-the-fact, in place of firm, testable predictions—the pseudoscientist’s stock in trade.

Data gathering in pseudosciences is slapdash; and research, if published at all, is usually self-distributed rather than found in the appropriate peer-reviewed journals. Pseudosciences abound with nonreplicable results. Their typical response to critics is ad hominem, while ignoring the disconfirming data. Bogus sciences are quick to misappropriate the prestige of legitimate science when it suits their purposes, but they are equally quick to vilify science when it disallows their fanciful claims. When they fail by conventional standards, pseudoscientists suddenly claim to be part of “a new paradigm” that stodgy orthodox scientists can’t hope to comprehend. In fact, it is pseudosciences that are stodgy and unchanging. One of their most common features is a reverence for ancient texts that are never updated with new discoveries. An earmark of a pseudoscience is stagnation where there should be intellectual ferment and constant modification by new findings, as in genuine scientific fields. As Carl Sagan recently observed, real science reserves its highest praise for the young who prove their predecessors wrong. Pseudosciences drum doubters out of the corps.

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Dr. Beyerstein, a member of the executive council of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), is a biopsychologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. This article was slightly modified from his chapter on graphology in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, published in 1996 by Prometheus Books.

This article was revised on Augusty 29, 2002.