Does handwriting analysis offer accurate insights into personality? Ode went to a graphologist to find out.
Marco Visscher | November 2008 issue
In preparation for my meeting with graphologist Maresi de Monchy, I was told to supply a handwritten text on a sheet of unlined paper. The content was irrelevant, the written words enough to analyze my handwriting—and with that, my personality. It sounded strangely old-fashioned, a little like having your palm read or your astrological chart drawn.
And therein lies the main criticism of graphology, the study and analysis of handwriting: You just cough up a few vague generalizations, add a couple of uncertainties and contrasts and keep it primarily positive and flattering. This is known as the Forer effect, named after Bertram Forer, a psychologist who showed in 1948 that his students found their “individual personality analysis” accurate even though he gave them all the same text from an astrology column. Referring to the Forer effect, and the lack of validation and consensus among practitioners, several damning reports have summarily dismissed graphology.
However, as recently as a few decades ago, graphology was considered standard procedure for evaluating job applicants in the business world. In some countries, such as Switzerland, two-thirds of companies still ask for handwritten letters to analyze a candidate’s personality, ambitions and work ethic. Today, an accredited degree in graphology is offered at a handful of universities around the world, mainly in Europe where the “science” of graphology was developed in the late 19th century by Frenchman Jules Crépieux-Jamin. He believed specific handwriting elements correlated with particular human traits. In his system, leaving a narrow margin on the right-hand side of the page, for example, meant you were anti-social.
While to some this may sound like baloney, surprising evidence shows graphology can in fact provide insights at least as valuable as those of psychology. De Monchy led a study at the Open University of the Netherlands that found graphologists and psychologists came up with similar results when they screened clients for leadership qualities, social skills, intelligence and emotional stability. One-hundred-and-fifty graphologists analyzed the handwriting of people who were also evaluated according to several personality assessment systems, like the WAIS, a general intelligence test. Both groups came to similar conclusions. Psychologists and graphologists were asked to give scores on a scale of one to five for these four traits, and often even came to the same score for individuals. “This study shows that graphology can be just as valuable as psychology in determining certain aspects of one’s personality,” says De Monchy. “Never before has this been shown in such a rigid way.” The study will be published next year in Global Graphology, the journal of the International Graphological Colloquium in Québec, Canada.
I, however, am somewhat skeptical as I take a seat across from De Monchy, who will be examining my writing sample. De Monchy isn’t just any graphologist. She has more than 30 years of experience, was chairman of the Dutch Association for Graphology and Writing Expertise, vice-chairman of the European Society for Handwriting Psychology and founder of the Chilean Scientific Graphology Association. She now heads up AGB, a graphological advice bureau in Rhoon, near Rotterdam. We sit at her kitchen table, overlooking the pastures surrounding her house. Most of her clients are businesses interested in knowing whether applicants are suitable for a position or a promotion; others are individuals like me, who want to know more about themselves.
Writing is movement on paper, according to De Monchy. Just as everyone has a unique set of motor skills, each person’s handwriting is also unique. If you spontaneously start to write, it’s probably impossible to present yourself as different than you are, she believes. “Naturally, every sample represents a moment in time,” De Monchy says. “But you cannot deliberately change the fundamental way you move. That is why graphology is a good way to analyze one’s personality.”
To make any analysis at all, a graphologist needs a lengthy sample; after writing about 15 lines, the writer becomes more caught up in what he or she is writing than how it’s written. De Monchy likes to work with specimens of at least 25 lines, preferably accompanied by a signature she calls “one’s business card.” De Monchy rarely reads the samples. She’s more concerned with the picture of the handwriting. Sometimes she even turns the paper upside-down so she can properly analyze the writing. It’s also irrelevant to write the way you may have learned at school. “Scholastically correct” handwriting can even be a bad sign, she says; it can point to a lack of development and individuality.
Graphologists may vary in their interpretation of the shapes, regularity and consistency in handwriting. Some study specific curlicues and strokes, to which they assign character traits. If the horizontal bars on your lower case T’s slope upward, for example, you’re said to be more ambitious; if they slope downward, you’re not exactly a high-flier. If the bars are placed above the stem of the T, you’re aiming much too high. “Nonsense,” De Monchy says of this approach, commonly taught in the U.S. “It’s all about the context. I look at the whole.” She insists the lack of consensus by graphologists on what a handwriting sample indicates can be attributed solely to the difference between good graphologists and bad graphologists. “The good ones come to the same analysis,” she says. “We show that every year at our international meetings, where for any handwritten sample, practitioners from different cultures come to the same conclusions.”
She adds that there are zones in handwriting. The upper zone, made up of the upward strokes of lowercase letters like “b,” “d” and “h”, say something about the writer’s intellectual interest. The lower zone—the downward loops and strokes of letters like “g,” “j” and “p”—are an indication of physical energy. The middle area is the ego: few loops upward or downward can indicate the writer is strongly focused on him or herself. The same applies to large handwriting, though De Monchy points out that older people’s writing is often larger because they don’t see as well, while the handwriting of adolescents is typically bigger during a growth spurt because they’re trying to find their voices. This needs to be considered when analyzing the handwriting of adolescents and the elderly.
These meanings became attached to certain shapes through a mixture of experience, intuition and symbolism, explains De Monchy. “A right slant could mean you’re open to others. After all, if you greet someone, you shake hands with them or you bow, both of which are forward movements. A left slant, on the other hand, might mean you isolate yourself from others. And everything in between could mean you’re reserved. The writing is a symbolic reflection of how the body moves.” Also important are things like how close together the letters are placed (more space might mean the writer leaves room for intuition) or the pressure (more pressure could mean more intense emotions, higher energy or a higher level of stress).
De Monchy can produce a short analysis of a writing sample, or, more accurately, a personality, in two or three hours. The next day, her verdict on my writing sample arrives by email. I’m amazed to read what my handwriting reveals. I have no appreciable leadership qualities. I’m not over-ambitious or likely to pound my fist on the table. I have difficulty saying “no” and often let people walk all over me. I exhibit a lack of method and structure and am not brilliant with time management. I’m nonchalant. I’m in danger of exhibiting a lack of commitment and “depth, despite the level of intelligence.” Yikes! There go my intellectual aspirations.
Thankfully, I have a few strong points. My handwriting exhibits flexible thinking marked by unexpected bright and creative ideas, an ability to handle stress and a practical approach. I am, the report says, “enviably easygoing.” My partner says the description fits, but feels it’s a little too harmonious; in reality, I’m more antagonistic than De Monchy’s analysis indicates. (Later, when I ask De Monchy whether she can see in someone’s handwriting whether they’re spiritually enlightened, she hesitates. “You can say whether a personality is harmoniously developed and integrated. In that case you’ll see writing that isn’t too big, is well-developed, nicely arranged and balanced with a good rhythm.”)
While De Monchy’s analysis may not reflect how I’d like to see myself, I could have used some more Forer effect! I admit it’s a startlingly accurate portrayal of how I’ve spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist. Racing from deadline to deadline, jumping from magazine to magazine, usually cruising along the path of least resistance. It takes a few days, but I become more and more satisfied with the analysis of my handwriting. I may not be enlightened or very special, but how bad is that? Actually, it feels like a relief to accept that I’m not someone with high ambitions. I comfort myself with the thought that when you think about it, “enviably easygoing” is quite spiritual. With such a personality, it seems I’ve pretty much found my place.