Graphology: Mere wishful thinking?

A graphologist (handwriting analyst) was interviewed on BBC Breakfast this morning. Resisting the urge to immediately rant on Twitter about the pseudoscience of graphology, I headed upstairs to my study instead. Since then I’ve spent some time refreshing myself on the arguments for and against the art. My own interest is in its use at work, so I’m not that concerned whether Donald Trump’s handwriting indicates if he’s a narcissist or not (*).

Two claims are commonly made by graphologists. The first claim is that graphology can be used to accurately assess personality traits. The second claim is that graphology is an effective personnel selection method. Naturally, for a selection method to be effective, it should be predictive of eventual job performance.

These are extraordinary claims and therefore require extraordinary evidence, as Carl Sagan used to say. Unfortunately for people who use the services of graphologists, the evidence in the peer-reviewed personality and occupational psychology literature does not bear these claims out.

For the purposes of brevity, I’ve naturally been selective in the papers I’ve quoted from in the rest of this article. They are, however, broadly representative of the scientific consensus on graphology over the last 30 or 40 years.

Is graphology a good predictor of personality?

No. It isn’t.

Leaving aside the arguments about whether any instrument can (a) measure personality and (b) extrapolate job performance from those measurements (**), handwriting analysis is not a good predictor of personality.

The gold standard of personality assessment is widely regarded to be instruments that measure the ‘Big Five’ traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. If graphology could replicate the outcomes of a Big Five questionnaire, then it could claim to be predictive of personality.

However, studies conducted by Dazzi & Pedrabissi (2009) found that results from a Big Five questionnaire did not correlate with the assessment of graphologists. Furthermore, agreement between graphologists was poor. These results are in line with the earlier meta-analysis conducted by Neter & Ben-Shakhar (1989) which concluded that graphologists are worse than laypeople at predicting personality traits from handwriting.

Simply put, a BBC article quoting experts from 2005, says:

The British Psychological Society ranks graphology alongside astrology – giving them both “zero validity” in determining someone’s character. Dr Rowan Bayne, a psychologist who tested top graphologists against their claims, says the practice is “useless… absolutely hopeless”.

Is graphology a good predictor of job performance?

No. It isn’t.

Robertson & Smith’s (2001) review of personnel selection studies reports that the best predictor of eventual job performance is a candidate’s cognitive ability (intelligence) and integrity. Structured interviews also score well. Common elements of typical CV’s, for example years spent in education and years of job experience, score poorly, but still fare far better than graphology. Indeed, the only worse predictor of eventual job performance they report is age. Even something as ephemeral as personal popularity at work positively correlates to job performance¬†(Garden, Hu, Zhan & Wei, 2018) at a level higher than graphology.

Accuracy of personnel selection methods
Accuracy of personnel selection methods – graphology has a lower accuracy than every method reported by Robertson & Smith (2001) except age (negative correlation).

Predicting future job performance during the selection process is hard. Even the best methods aren’t infallible. But graphology is not the answer.

Conclusion

Based on all I’ve read today, I find it impossible not to agree with this statement.

There is no doubt that when one carefully selects studies in terms of their methodological robustness, the evidence [for the efficacy of graphology] is overwhelmingly negative (Dazzi & Pedrabissi, 2009).

Graphology as practised today is mere wishful thinking.

Footnotes

(*) I did find a paper on narcissism and career success. It concludes that narcissism impacts success through increased occupational self-efficacy beliefs and career engagement – but has only a weak relationship to standard measures of career success, including job satisfaction and salary.

(**) See my earlier post – Does measuring personality make sense?

 

References

Dazzi, C. & Pedrabissi, L. (2009). Graphology and Personality: An Empirical Study on Validity of Handwriting Analysis. Psychological Reports, 105(3), 1255-1268.

Garden, R., Xu, H., Zhan, Y. & Wei, F. (2018). The Role of Workplace Popularity: Links to Employee Characteristics and Supervisor-Rated Outcomes. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 25(1), 19-29.

Neter, E. & Ben-Shakhar, G. (1989). The predictive validity of graphological inferences: a meta-analytic approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 10, 737-745.

Robertson, I.T. & Smith, M. (2001). Personnel Selection. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 441-472.

One thought on “Graphology: Mere wishful thinking?

  1. I am not going to make any comment about Emma Bache but she is not part of our organisation. I am Chairman of the British Academy of Graphology and there is extensive and extremely comprehensive research on the validity of graphology which I would be quite happy to show you. From my own experience it is extremely helpful, not the least, for example, when I uncovered a criminal who was making false statues which he sold at Christie’s. You may remember the case of Mr. Greenhaulgh. It was only through a detailed examination of his writing on a fake statue, “proving” his provenance, that he was caught out and spent some time in prison.

    The study of graphology is not just reading several books and saying you are a graphologist. Our Diploma course, when I took it, was examined by the Sorbonne, and it took 3 years of full time study, 1.5 of which was psychology. I then took the Advanced Diploma, another 2 years’ study. All the members of our Board are professionals with University degrees. At this moment we are dealing with the Renna Nezos prize, which was started by our founder, Renna Nezos, where graphologists from all over the World are invited to present their latest research, as yet unpublished. I have seen the papers and I can assure you they are extraordinarily detailed and highly impressive.

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