The Lowdown on Handwriting Analysis
Presents an account of a meeting with graphologist Andrea McNichol. Discusses basics of graphology including lack of credentials as a 'hard science.'
By Matthew Scanlon and James Mauro published November 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Graphologist Andrea McNichol is nothing if not persistent. For weeks, theeditorial staff of Psychology Today was virtually bombarded with proposals, queries, and letters from her publisher on her favorite subject-handwriting analysis. As a rule, we try to respond to queries whenever they appear. It's equally true that, given the nature of PT's editorial, we receive more than our share of unusual letters.
Bluntly, graphology doesn't get much respect-among academics or the professional psychological community. So, despite the fact that Andrea's resume' was impressive (she had studied graphology at the University of Heidelberg and the Sorbonne; teaches a course on the subject at the University of California; has given expert testimony in the examination Howard Hughes's will and the Billionaire Boys Club murder; and was a consultant on the Hitler diaries), we were inclined to go with conventional thinking.
Nevertheless, we agreed to meet with McNichol, more out of exhaustion than curiosity. Her presentation was clearly more interesting than we would have thought, and some of us-after we'd had our handwriting analyzed-were impressed: McNichol must have had a prior meeting with our mothers in order to know so much about us. Here's an account of our meeting; judge for yourself.
"Okay," McNichol began. "Why are we here? I'm here to persuade you that graphology isn't a crock. You're here to listen. It's not going to be easy because I know that you've grown accustomed to regarding graphology as just a bit more respectable than throwing bones. But it's all perfectly logical and understandable, once you have some basics under your belt. For instance..."
She drew these examples on a blackboard:
"Okay, who is moodier, A or B?"
She knew the answer. We knew the answer. A dead person would know the answer.
"Class!" she shouted at us. "Who is moodier?"
At once reduced to a group of confused but obedient grade-schoolers, we replied in unison, "A".
"That's right. Thank you. Now, who likes to be in the middle of everything?"
We smiled, nodded, glanced at our watches and hoped that things would get more interesting very soon. McNichol stomped her foot until we replied that, indeed, "B" feels more centralized.
"Okay boys and girls, now who's lying about his age?"
Unsure, we answered "B," though without exactly knowing why.
"Obviously," McNichol pointed out, "person B hesitated before writing the number 36. Whenever you see an abnormally wide space between two words, you know the writer lost spontaneity, but kept moving his hand to the right. You have to ask yourself, 'Now why would someone stop before writing his age?' Usually, we find it's because be's lying!
"Now let's try a tough one..."
"Based on these two memos, which jack is more likely to get a raise?"
"A!" we shouted.
"Very good! We will automatically give stature to something we think is important. Clearly, whoever wrote the first memo thinks more of jack."
A few more of these perception teasers followed, until the editor in chief broke in:
"Your point seems pretty clear to us, Andrea. What I personally am curious about is why graphology seems to lack the credentials that would allow it to be recognized as a 'hard science'? I know that before we reviewed all the material for our meeting today, we had scarcely heard graphology mentioned in the psychological community."
McNichol smiled. "I can see I've managed to sufficiently annoy you all, but I promise that there is a reason for introducing the topic so simplistically. Graphology is not taken very seriously in the United States, yet much of the rest of the world finds it an indispensable aid to discerning people's personalities and motivations." "Is the body of scientists just dim-witted around these parts? What makes them hesitant to give praise?"
"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.
"For example, I heard of a case in which a graphoanalyst diagnosed a woman as having heart problems simply because she had a glitch in the upstroke of her letter H. The analyst believed that, subconsciously, the letter H produced anxiety in the woman, and that this anxiety was manifested physically. Now, 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, although unfortunately it's still practiced today."
"Why did graphology develop differently-and is it really all that much different from graphoanalysis? To be honest, suggesting that someone is moodier just because his lines waver seems as simplistic as guessing that a tremor on the letter H reveals a heart condition."
"First question first. Graphology developed in conjunction with psychiatry in Europe, not with popular psychology as it did here in the United States. Men such as Jung, Freud, and numerous other scientists were convinced of its value and studied it in depth. They paid little attention to individual letters, though. instead, they concentrated upon the whole of a person's handwriting: where the writing was located on the page, how fluid or jagged the lines were, and how legible it was. These factors were considered of much greater importance to them than the letter H.
"They came to the conclusion that handwriting was a window to both the conscious and subconscious mind. I consider it as a constantly available EKG for the brain, because it immediately shows our evolving physical and mental state."
'Are you telling us that you can diagnose psychological problems simply by examining a few lines of someone's handwriting?"
"In general, of course, no serious professional would presume to diagnose so simply. But if I were a healthcare professional, business person, etc., and I had to interview a customer, client, or a potential employee, handwriting analysis could provide some valuable clues about a person that I would have virtually no access to otherwise. In fact, just a handful of lines can tip me off to a person's general intelligence, emotional stability, characteristics as leader or follower, their level of honesty, frequency of drug use, and physical activity level"
"That claim seems Incredible. Can you tell us exactly how you dissect a person's handwriting. What specifically are you looking for?"
"Well, take a look at one rather extreme example...
...is this the writing of a well-adjusted person? it's crazy. There is no consistency whatsoever. The slant of the strokes veers in all directions. The writer's mind was obviously traveling a hundred paths at once. So it's not going to surprise you when I tell you that this is Charles Manson's handwriting. Not all crazy people write like this of course, but the standouts are very recognizable.
"The vast majority of handwriting, regardless of whether one is right-or left-handed, follows a predictable pattern. it is slanted slightly to the right, it is legible, it occupies an appropriate amount of the page, and its style is pretty consistent. Any dramatic deviations from this formula merit a bit of investigation. This is not to suggest that you have to leave the room if you observe someone who's letters veer to the left rather than the right, but it could tell you something about him."
"What does slanting to the left suggest to you?"
"I generally come to no conclusions until I see several writing traits suggesting the same thing, but a pronounced slant to the left is one indication that the writer is holding back his or her true emotions and may be repressed in a significant way. Conversely, if the slant has a pronounced rightward angle, the writer may be carried away by his or her feelings. If the slant jumps from left to right, the writer's mind is unstable and it may be a reflection that the person is being untruthful or is suffering from some significant stress.
"Take a look at a letter Jackie Kennedy wrote shortly after her husband's death in 1963. What does it say to you given the slant information we discussed?"
"The slant is leftward. She's withdrawn."
"Exactly. Do you remember the events following the assassination of President Kennedy-people remarked how Jackie showed no emotion whatsoever. We wanted her to cry, to do something ... but it just wasn't in her to do it. Getting back to the page; is there anything that catches your eye immediately?"
"The signature seems strange ... too far below the paragraph."
"What does that suggest to you?"
"She wants to separate herself from what she's writing. Maybe she doesn't feel strongly about what she wrote."
"That's possible. She certainly feels isolated. Since I haven't brought this up yet, I suppose it was dumb to expect you pick up on it, but don't the strokes on the capital I's as well as the lower-case t's and k's seem somewhat exaggerated? They look very unnatural to me. This feature of handwriting is called "clubbed stroking" and may indicate a potential for cruelty. The only way you can make these dubs is to bear down on the pen at the beginning or end of the stroke. If you grab a piece of paper and try to make letters like this, the movement is bound to make you feel tense and angry. "
"We know that you've worked for the FBI and the State Department. Is graphology part of their investigative procedure now?"
"A great deal of my work for the government is in determining the identity of and degree of danger posed by those who mail death threats to government officials. This kind of thing happens more often than you might imagine, and in many instances, a single disturbed person will mail threats to several officials. It's not very difficult to identify a criminal once a good writing sample is obtained."
"What about lesser criminals? Thieves? Embezzlers? If they are smart enough, can they fool you?"
"I've had people make some concerted attempts to mask their writing, but it virtually never works. A lie can be identified on the page. See for yourself. Take a look at the two paragraphs on page 51.
"I investigated a case a few years ago involving a theft of $52,000 from the vault of a department store. The theft occurred sometime between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. Assuming that it was an inside job, since there were no signs of forced entry, the owners asked the two workers on duty that night to write down what their activities were. What stands out in these letters?"
"The Cashier's writing seems strained ... and the slant is a little inconsistent. The janitor has a variety of slants, too, yet his letter seems less stressed."
"You're right about the slants. Cashier A may have a tendency to repress, but that doesn't necessarily mean criminal intent. A good first step in interpreting a page is to examine the spacing. if there are exaggerated spaces between words, the writer's mind was pausing or hesitating while writing them. Why were they hesitating? You've got to make an effort to lie on the page, an effort that interrupts the normal flow of your writing. The truth usually flows pretty easily.
"So what can we conclude from the statements? It seems clear that the large spaces in the janitor's letter between the words "at" and "my" as well as between "of" and "6:00" suggest that he did not leave at the time indicated.
"I called the manager and said that I could not conclude from the letters who stole the money, but that the janitor probably was lying about the at which he'd left that night. It turned out that he was told to leave early the day manager, who had unexpectedly shown up two hours early that morning, but hadn't informed anyone of his arrival. The manager was later identified as the thief
"Criminal investigations are often solved solely through graphology, and this case demonstrates that it is a very useful tool for leading police in the right direction.
"There are hundreds of traits to examine, far more than I could tell you about today, but much of the preliminary examination of handwriting is guided by common sense. Look for the abnormalities, and make educated guesses as to what they mean."
"Why do people's signatures often seem so different from the rest of their writing. What is so special about them?"
"A signature represents the writer's public self-image. Notice that I said image. The signature reflects how you perceive yourself publicly, not reality."
"How can you come to that conclusion. Why isn't just a representation Of self-image alone?"
"Do you ever sign something that is not intended for other people to see? When you write sentences and paragraphs, you are communicating feelings and ideas. When you get to your signature though, you're communicating something completely different; you are leaving your name, your public identity on the page. So if you are not the same person in public as you are in private, graphologists will be able to see this in your signature"
"In the above example, what's the first thing you see with Poet Walt Whitman's sample? His signature. This is someone who feels that his public self-image must be much larger than his real self-image. He is screaming to be heard. A person with this trait generally feels small inside, and to compensate he comes on extra big, cocky, attention-seeking.
"A signature much smaller than the rest of the sample, such as that of the musical producer Phil Roach (below) reveals just the opposite. Phil's public image is under emphasized. He cares little about public reaction to him. Both Walt's and Phil's signatures are legible though, so they want you to be able to recognize them.
"Obviously, many people write their names so many times a day that it is often impossible to write legibly on every occasion, but a consistently indecipherable signature may suggest that the writer wants to conceal his or her identity indefinitely.
"Can you possibly guess who's signature this is?
"Of course you can't, because the signature is totally obliterated. Graphologists refer to the trait of crossing out part or all of your name as scoring. This trait reveals a hidden desire to self-destruct. It might come as some surprise to you to learn that was Napoleon's signature, and was signed late in his career. He knew that his public self-image was taking quite a beating.
"If only the first or last names of a signature are crossed out, they are clearly the parts causing stress for the writer. If you cross out your last name, maybe you feel anger towards your father, or your brother or sister. There could be a thousand reasons, but family tension is definitely present.
"If you think that Napoleon's image was suffering, take a look at how Richard Nixon's signature deteriorated during his career."
"Notice how small Nixon's signature became in 1974, when he was forced to resign. His signature was nothing more than a fine with a X through it. Warning bells should go off all over the place on that one. There is a small but perceptible decline to his name as well late in his career.
"People who write on a decline are experiencing some sort of depression, whereas level or inclined writing generally means that the writer is content. Exaggerated incline and dedine are both considered negative traits though."
"Other than details about a person's signature, what else about his handwriting would reveal something about his character?"
"Okay, here's a good example. The writer in the sample above ignores the left margin and writes through the vertical line as if it didn't exist. The left margin represents the 'line of society-when a writer goes outside the boundaries that are given to him, he flaunts his desire not to stay within the set limitations."
Would it surprise you to learn this is the writing of Oliver North?'
"No, actually, it wouldn't. But just because Oliver North writes this way, how do you know that everyone who ignores the left margin doesn't 'play by the rules' What gives you the scientific right to make that assumption, and isn't that really the big question this an comes down to-what do you base your conclusions on?"
"To begin with, this trait, like all traits in graphology, was validated through empirical study. Which means we look at handwriting samples that were taken from literally hundreds of people who have a particular characteristic, and if a statistically significant number of them also show certain tendencies in their handwriting, we make the connection that most people who write this way will also have that same characteristic.
"What we look for are handwriting traits that occur more frequently in certain people's writing than in that of the general population. For instance, the Oliver North margin example comes from a prison population study that sought to corroborate specific traits with criminal and antisocial behavior.
"Again, the study found that a statistically significant number of those who were tested did not line up their left margin."
"You're saying that this is more than just a parlor trick, that the way we write actually reflects what's going on inside our heads rather than simply our hand coordination."
"Exactly. Studies have shown that people who become paralyzed are able to recreate their original handwriting using a device which allows them to write with their mouths. Now, what does that tell you about where your handwriting originates?
"It's from up here," McNichol tapped her head knowingly, then ran her pen along a blank page, "and it comes out here."
Editor's Note: All of the handwriting samples were taken from Handwriting Analysis: Putting It to Work for You, by Andrea McNichol and Jeff Nelson (Contemporary Books, 1991).
A SHORT QUIZ
1. Who has a higher I.Q., Person A or Person B?
-B has a higher I.Q. What is it about B that we identify with intelligence? It is the fact that the letters got smaller as B wrote, while A's letters got bigger. The tendency of letters to grow smaller shows that the writer is picking up concentration as she writes.
2. Which person is more dishonest about money?
A is more dishonest about money because his numbers are indistinct and touched up. B is more honest because his numbers are easy to read. Who knows what numbers A is writing?
3. Which writer is feeling more restless?
The answer is B, the writer in the long lower zone. Such people are usually restless and in constant need of variety and change. The longer the lower zone (with letters such as Y and G), the more restless the writer.
4. Which Mrs. Smith wants a divorce from Mr. Smith?
I hope this one was obvious: B, by signing her name in this manner, is actualy crossing out her husband, Not the happiest marriage!
5. Which one of these two samples represent the lawbreaker, A or B?
The answer is A. You probably got this right simply by using common sense-B's writing is lined up and A's isn't. (For an explanation of the scientific method used to test the validity of htis particular trait, see "Writing a Rorsharch" on page 50.) We know that the criminal is more likely to get "out of line," not to order himself, while B has a straight left margin.
HANDWRITING TRAITS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTURBANCES
One traits below apply only to those writing samples meant to be read by other people,
1. Writing which is slanted in all directions with no particular pattern (indicates severe emotional instability).
2. Writing which is permeated with mistakes (indicates drug/alcohol use and/or acute anxiety or dishonesty).
3. Mistakes crossed out multiple times and/or with heavy lines (indicates anxiety, severe frustration, and anti-social tendencies).
4. Continually crashing into the right edge of the paper (indicates severe impulsivity and may indicate an accident-prone individual),
5. High illegibility (indicates inner unhappiness which manifests itself in inconsideration for the reader and others).
6. Overly angular (indicates acute anger, frustration, and anti-social behavior).
7. Presence of unnecessary and inappropriate drawings, shapes, or formations (indicates abnormal thought patterns and possible psychosis).
8. An uneven left margin (indicates unwillingness to abide by the rules of society).
WRITING A RORSHARCH
Part of the skepticism surrounding graphology stems from the fact that most of the research attests to its validity as a scientific diagnostic tool, but fads to show how and why it works. As such, one is left believing that a certain trait in handwriting reveals a certain personality characteristic, with no rhyme or reason: depressed people write in a downward slant, angry people make sharp, angled lines, etc.
Yet think of handwriting as a kind of Rorschach (or inkblot) test: if 95% of schizophrenics do certain things in their writing that the average population does not, we can safely conclude that individuals who exhibit these traits in their handwriting have the potential to be schizophrenics.
There are actually five types of deductions graphologists use in making their analyses:
1. Physiological Deductions. Graphologists use these deductions to determine the physical state of the writer, including sickness, drug use or abuse, and even the writer's true identity. If a writer's hand shakes, his writing will shake; if a writer feels pressure or tension (as in a forgery), he will press down harder on the page.
2. Commonsense Deductions. Sometimes there is no other conclusion that one can draw from a handwriting sample other than a commonsense one. Neat people write neatly, illiterate people will write incorrectly, people who dislike their names may sign them in an indecipherable scrawl or finish them with a line through the middle-effectively crossing out their names.
3. Deductions Using Universal Concepts. Anthropologist Desmond Morris identified certain body language traits that are universal to all cultures-expressions of happiness and sadness, pain and pleasure, anger a-nd affection.
Handwriting is a trace of your body movements-it is body language on paper, and all the same associations apply: a person who's feeling more up will write in that direction; one who feels bigger about herself will write her name larger.
4. Simple Psychological Interpretations. To make accurate psychological interpretations, one has to be aware of basic psychological principles. For example, Freud broadly applied the principle that when something is overdone, it actually means the opposite-you are compensating for that which you feel you lack.
To illustrate this, if someone wrote the phrase "I love you" and wrote the word "love" twice as large as the others, it would probably mean that he or she does not love you.
As Shakespeare said, "The lady doth protest too much methinks."
5. The Scientific Method. The science of graphology is also based on empirical research. To determine which handwriting traits correspond to a particular characteristic, graphologists study large numbers of handwriting samples from people who have been identified as having that characteristic, and look for traits that occur more frequently in their handwriting than in that of the general population.
For example, one such study found that when convicted felons are asked to write on a blank, page, a statistically significant number of them do not line up their left margins. Criminals, obviously, do not "toe the line" of society. Graphologists have identified 25 different handwriting traits that a-re significandy more common among convicted felons than in others.
Graphology is the study of all graphic movement- it is not simply "handwriting analysis' " In addition to handwriting, a graphologist studies doodles, drawings, sculptures, and paintings in order to gain insight into the physical, mental, and emotional states of the writer or artist.
Can you produce "handwriting" without a hand? Try this experiment: Hold a pen in your mouth and sign your name on a piece of paper. Whose handwriting were you trying to imitate? If you were really forced to learn to write this way, after enough practice you would eventually produce the same "handwriting" with your mouth that you currently produce with your hands. Studies of thousands of people who have lost the use of their hands show that they eventually produce the same unique "handwriting" they had when they could use their hands.
The point is that it's not our hand or mouth or toes that decide which way the pen will go across the paper. Those decisions actually come from our brains. So when we produce any graphic movement, we are actually "brainwriting" leaving our "brain prints" behind on the paper. By studying these brain prints, graphologists are able to discern what was going on inside the writer's mind when he or she made certain distinctive movements, altered the size or style, or left significant gaps in the writing produced.
After just a few minutes of looking at a complete stranger's handwriting, a graphologist can correctly, determine the following characteristics about the writer:
o Country/Region of origin
o Level of intelligence
o Emotional stability
o Aptitudes and talents
o Leadership qualities
o Honesty level
o Physical activity level
o Work/school performance