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.

(Probably) the end

Hello! *Blows away the cobwebs and dusts furiously* I bet you thought that I’d forgotten about you all as I haven’t written anything here since May. Well, after my excellent attempts at procrastination earlier on in the year, I finally decided to buckle down and sort my dissertation out. It’s been quite a journey, which is why I’ve been so uncharacteristically quiet – both here, and on my own blog.

I’m glad to report that after many, many more hours of work than I’d originally estimated, resulting in the production of 22 drafts for the research paper and 7 for the executive summary, I successfully submitted the dissertation last month. I’m now basking in the knowledge that I’ve passed not only the dissertation component of the MSc, but the MSc itself.

Naturally, I have a number of pieces of advice to pass onto future part-time, distance learners undertaking the Occupational Psychology MSc at Leicester in future. The most important of these naturally relate to the dissertation.

Firstly, don’t undertake a piece of qualitative research simply because you’re not keen on statistics. Only do it if you’re really committed to your research question and a qualitative methodology is the only way you’ll be able to answer it. Qualitative research is definitely not an easy option, particularly if you’re looking to demonstrate it’s been performed rigorously and transparently. And you should be, of course.

Secondly, make good use of your dissertation supervisor. Keep them updated with your progress, tell them what you’re thinking about doing … and when they question you, listen to their advice and act on it. They know what they’re talking about! For example, I would have had a much worse question schedule had I not listened carefully to my supervisor’s advice at the start of the process. The quality of the questions that I eventually came up with resulted (I believe) in a far more coherent set of data when it came to analysis than I otherwise would have had. Good data certainly makes analysis more enjoyable, and it made generating evidence-based conclusions easier too.

Thirdly, find ways to enjoy the process. If you’re a distance learner, feelings of isolation and self-doubt seem to haunt most of us at some stage. Talk about your concerns to others – a Facebook group of fellow students in my first year and an email list in my delayed second year certainly helped me when I needed to sound off. The other way I found to enjoy myself was to deliberately argue for controversial positions that I didn’t necessarily hold (backed by evidence, naturally) in the assessments we were set. I seem to remember the ergonomics module being a particularly fruitful one for this approach. In occupational psychology, as in life, there are no completely right or wrong answers – simply positions you can justify based on evidence.

This is probably the end of my academic adventures at Leicester (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m looking forward to presenting my dissertation findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference as well as my graduation ceremony in January. I certainly hope to stay in touch with many of my fellow students and the academic staff who have encouraged me over the last three years. Your efforts have been hugely appreciated.

 

This article was originally published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 30th October 2016.

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Discursive strategies used by sales leaders in value co-creation

Today, this amazing thing happened.
DOP Conference 2017 Programme

A short paper based on my MSc research into the discursive strategies used by sales leaders has been included in the programme for the 2017 BPS division of occupational psychology conference. It’s being held in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January. I have a 9am slot on the morning after the gala dinner. I can see that I may need to find innovative ways of encouraging people to attend …

Anyway, I’m absolutely thrilled, excited, chuffed … you get the picture … to be able to speak at the conference. I really hope to see some of you who have read this blog over the years there too.

6 things my pilot research interview taught me

I’ve now completed my pilot research interview, transcribed the resulting audio and conducted a very brief analysis of the data. These are six of the more important things the pilot has taught me.

  • I was accurate at estimating how long the interview would take. I recorded just over 46 minutes of audio, having initially estimated 45-60 minutes. This is good as, if the interview had gone on for longer, it would have become too difficult for me and the interviewee to concentrate.
  • When listening back to the audio, it became apparent that some of the questions I asked were too long, too rambling, and in some cases were confusing, because I was asking for 2 or 3 things at the same time. A bit like that last sentence really. I’ve gone back through my interview schedule and revised the questions into what I hope are shorter, pithier and better phrased questions that will be easier for my participants to answer.
  • I was reasonably accurate at predicting how long an interview takes to transcribe. My original expectation was around an hour’s effort to transcribe between 5 and 7 minutes of speech. That turned out to be about right. Just as importantly, I’ve now discovered that it’s much easier to transcribe an interview if I don’t interrupt too often and try not to speak over my interviewee.
  • I was able to gather data that suggests I’ll be able to answer my research question. Hurrah! However, I’ve also realised that some of the questions I asked can be replaced by ones which more closely align to it. My supervisor agrees, so I’ve submitted a revised interview schedule that I believe will work better.
  • I have no shortage of willing participants. However, scheduling an interview is a little trickier than I first anticipated. Having a ‘plan B’ is useful when real life means that a participant can’t make it at short notice.
  • Qualitative studies produce lots of rich data and there isn’t enough time in the day to be able to analyse it from every possible angle. Having a well-defined set of methodological tools to start the analysis from is definitely useful, but to get the best out of the data you need to go beyond them – or at least, I need to use them in more depth than I did on the pilot interview data.

Oh, and number seven – never do a piece of qualitative research without piloting it! I’m certain that without the pilot session I would have ended up with poorer data to analyse in respect of my research question and the job of transcribing it would have become much harder. My golden rule (and note) from last time therefore still applies:

Ssshhh!If you’ve conducted a research interview, what’s your formula for success?

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 6th April 2016.

Six things needed for a research interview

On Monday I will start to feel like a ‘proper’ researcher. That’s because I’ve reached the stage in my dissertation when I can conduct a pilot interview. The aim of piloting the interview is to make sure that the questions I’m asking can be understood by the actual group of participants I’ll be working with in April and that the answers to the questions generate data which can be analysed in such a way that it helps me to address my research question.

Interview KitThe picture shows the things that I’ll be taking along to the pilot interview session I’ve arranged. The items are:

  • A participant consent form. This is vital, as without it being signed by the participant to signal that they’re giving me their informed consent to take part in the research, I’d be breaking the ethical code of conduct of both the university and the British Psychological Society.
  • Briefing notes and my interview question guide. Before I start the interview, I need to let my participants know a little of what I’ll be asking them about. So that the interview doesn’t turn into some kind of unstructured chat, I have the key questions linked to the research models that I’m trying to test, written in a table form for me to refer to throughout the session.
  • A participant information sheet. This is so that my interviewees will be able to understand what will happen next in the research process (transcription, checking and analysis), how they can get in contact with me again if they have concerns, and to remind them of their right to withdraw their data up until the point at which I’ve conducted the analysis.
  • Pens to write some brief notes with during the interview. These notes will help me to quickly find parts of the interview that strike me as being particularly important, as well as being able to record other aspects of what happens during each session that can’t be retrieved from an audio recording alone.
  • My trusty digital voice recorder. This is purpose-built for the job and produces extremely good quality audio – essential for the transcription process. It’s also easy to transfer recordings from it onto my encrypted laptop and then wipe its entire memory – essential for protecting participant privacy. I’ve tested it again this morning, making sure that the batteries are up to scratch and that I also have spares – just in case, you understand.

The hardest part for me during the interviews will be to do more listening than talking. I’m expected to talk a lot (some would say far too much) for my day job, so I’m going to be taking this little note along with me too.

Ssshhh!A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 19th March 2016.

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Ethics: not just a checklist

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

 

General Norman Schwarzkopf

The British Psychological Society introduces its resources on ethics by stating that they are “… central to everything we do whether in research or practice”. They’ve certainly been front and centre for me over the last few days in the context of planning the research for my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to make sure that my proposal adequately addresses the ethical standards that the university expects us to comply with. I’m hopeful that what I’m proposing will prove to be relatively unproblematic. I’m not going to use deception in my research (I’m not Milgram), nor am I going to set participant against participant (I’m definitely not Zimbardo). But even though I won’t be emulating their practices, which seem hopelessly unethical by today’s standards, I still have a duty to make sure that I try to protect me and my participants from any unintended consequences that may arise from my research. So I’ve been taking ethical considerations seriously in my design, rather than viewing it as simply a checklist to get through.

Most of my ethical concerns are around making sure that I have permission from the organisation I’m working with to gain access to participants and data, that the research setting I use for interviews is safe and comfortable, that I take adequate precautions to protect participant confidentiality and that the electronic and physical security of the data I collect is assured.

Paraphrasing the words of General Schwarzkopf, I hope that I’ve figured out the right things to do – and that I remember to do them in the midst of the battle that juggling study, work, family and health will undoubtedly be in 2016.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd December 2015.

Dissertation proposal progress

I’ve just realised that it’s been rather a long time since I wrote about the progress of my dissertation proposal. August, to be precise. So with the deadline for submission rapidly approaching and making that gut-wrenching, whistling, wooshing noise that all deadlines seem to make, it means that it’s probably time to update you on my progress.

I’ve taken my own advice from August to heart and I’ve wisely decided not to boil the ocean. Having originally approached the dissertation with the vague idea of doing some research into the factors that affect the performance of salespeople (I now realise after much reading and thought that such a list is quite likely to be an infinite one), I think that I’ve finally ended up with a reasonably focused research question to investigate.

That’s good news, but perhaps what is less good news is my belief that the research question I’ve chosen lends itself to a qualitative, interpretative and post-modernist approach. While I’m excited about my research and the way in which I plan to do it, I’m still somewhat concerned that I didn’t force myself to come up with what would have been – for me – a much simpler quantitative, experimental and modernist approach. Oh well. Only time will tell if my social constructionist convictions have written a cheque that I won’t be able to cash.

I’ve a bit of fine tuning to complete on the proposal (and especially on my project plan) over the next couple of weeks. I’ll then be able to take a bit of a break from study over Christmas before the reality of the research process kicks in again early on in the New Year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd November 2015.

You’re fired! Why “The Apprentice” wasn’t all about negotiation this week

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “The Apprentice”. It’s back on our screens at the moment and this week’s episode featured one of my favourite tasks – the scavenger hunt. The teams were asked to source nine different items, at the lowest possible cost, and deliver them back to the boardroom. This year’s twist was that some members of each team were sent to France, with the others remaining in Kent.

One of the things that always strikes me about the scavenger hunt is the claim often made by the contestants (and sometimes by the people in the boardroom who really should know better) is that the heart of the task is all about negotiation. However, that’s not really the case.

Firstly, this task is about good research and planning. Lord Sugar rightly lambasted the teams for not doing this well enough, even though (unusually) they had been given several hours to think this through before being let loose on unsuspecting sellers. You need a ‘plan A’ for each item, but having a ‘plan B’ (and even a plan C or D) is useful too. Psychological flexibility – having the courage to dump plan A when it doesn’t work out – is really important here. But of course, in an artificial environment like The Apprentice where everyone is out for themselves (it’s a zero sum game after all, as there can only be one winner); flexibility is often constructed as weakness.

Secondly, it’s about thinking rationally. While there’s a fixed penalty of £50 for each item missed, there’s a variable penalty added on depending on the market value of the item too. So it’s worthwhile investing more time in finding the higher value items. It’s usually the case that the lower value items are easier to source anyway – a quick trip to any market or supermarket in France would have rapidly netted 3 of the 9 this time around (mussels, snails and cheese). And if you’re going to spend time haggling over the cost of an item, it’s better to spend that time doing it well for a few percentage points off something costing £250, than failing to get a discount off something sold for €15. Especially if the person making the purchase doesn’t speak French very well!

Thirdly, the contestants usually mistake haggling for negotiation. They sometimes remember to ask for a discount, but they’re not in a position to make concessions on the quality of the item (who will ever forget the paper skeleton saga from last year’s show), when it can be delivered to them (they have an immovable deadline), what publicity they might give the seller (the BBC has editorial control) the form of payment offered (it’s cash now, take it or leave it) and so on. They don’t really have anything to negotiate with. Business negotiations are invariably more flexible and complex affairs that provide lasting value to both parties. Once you’ve recognised that you’re actually haggling, rather than negotiating, the best thing to do is to politely ask for a ridiculously large discount to start off with and then cajole the seller into revealing their hand. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Ultimately however, successful candidates on The Apprentice understand how language can be used to justify their own actions and blame others, in the context of the expectations that Lord Sugar and his team have. This week’s unsuccessful project manager understood this only too well (Lord Sugar has often said that he detests non-triers), so although she failed on most aspects of planning, flexibility and rationality during the task, she successfully positioned herself as a trier. The contestant Lord Sugar eventually fired was positioned as the non-trier, and so lost.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd October 2015.

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What have the psychologists ever done for us?

There’s a wonderfully thought-provoking piece that’s been published on The British Psychological Society’s website in the last few days called “Where is psychology’s non-stick frying pan?“. I’d encourage everyone to read Phil Banyard’s article in full, but if you’re in a hurry, the beginning reads rather like John Cleese’s rant asking “What have the Romans ever done for us” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only for a large number of examples to be offered.

Roman Road in Nora, Sardinia 2015
One of the roads that the Romans built in Nora, Sardinia

Phil does concede that even if psychologists can’t point to vast numbers of discoveries or inventions like other scientific disciplines, psychology has at least enabled us to explain our existence in non-superstitious and non-religious ways in what has become an increasingly secular world.

It’s not the first time that questions of this kind have been asked about the value of psychology. In 1967, an American social psychologist, Kenneth Ring, concluded that the subject was in intellectual disarray(*) as practitioners appeared to spend most of their efforts devising laboratory experiments that were divorced from any kind of social context, as well as delighting in the publication of counter-intuitive, but trivial, findings. His paper was a precursor to much discussion about a crisis in social psychology, with one of the responses to it being the development of critical social psychology. Unlike the experimental tradition, critical social psychology disciplines all emphasise the importance of creating understandings of individuals situated in their social and historical settings, as well as taking into account the way that other people influence us, our multiple identities and how discourse positions individuals in society(+).

The occupational psychology field isn’t immune to the same kind of challenges. For example, I recently came across a study from the mid 1990s that produced some startlingly counter-intuitive findings about the way salespeople and customers interact. On closer inspection however, the paper described a laboratory experiment where a number of college students role-played at being salespeople and customers for a couple of minutes. So there was no real commerce taking place, the salespeople weren’t salespeople, the customers weren’t really buying anything and the timescale of the interaction was too short to be meaningful. Yet this study had been published by a respected peer reviewed journal and had been subsequently cited by a number of other authors. It’s moments like these where I do have some sympathy with the argument that psychologists really haven’t delivered very much in the way of truly meaningful insights over the last century or so.

And yet, there is much of value that has come from occupational psychological research. For example graphology and unstructured interviews have been shown to be useless or poor recruitment tools. The development of understandings about how leaders and their followers can become more effective in the workplace have resulted in more profitable organisations. Improved methods of training and development in the workplace have resulted in more competent employees.

While all of these things may not be as immediately tangible as having access to a good non-stick frying pan to use when I want to rustle up my dinner, their importance should not be underestimated.

So what has psychology ever done for you – or what do you wish that it could do?

 

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd August 2015.

 

(*) Ring, K. (1967). Experimental social psychology: some sober questions about some frivolous values, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 113-123.

(+) Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: Past and Present. In Hollway, W., Lucey, H. & Phoenix, A. (Eds.), Social Psychology Matters (pp. 1-32). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Should I go to Glasgow for the DOP conference in January?

I’ve really been enjoying the Commonwealth Games over the last few days, even though my view of them has been from my armchair at home, supplemented by a few quick, surreptitious glances at the BBC website while I’ve been at work, rather than from the venues in Glasgow. However, an event in Glasgow that I’m currently considering whether to attend is the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in early January 2015.

While the full (non-residential) cost of the conference for BPS members is £317 (rising to £357 for registrations received after 20th October) for a non-residential package, they’re currently offering a reduced rate to postgraduate students of £179 for the 3 days of the conference, which looks rather more affordable. First time attendees (which I would be) are also offered the chance to team up with an ambassador, as a way of breaking the ice and meeting new people to network with – always a useful thing to do at conferences.

Details of the programme are still a little sketchy at the moment, presumably because the deadline for submissions isn’t for another few days, but the keynote speakers they have announced sound fascinating. As I’m involved in helping organisations to adopt business process management as part of my day job it would be of professional, as well as academic interest to be able listen to Dr Helen Bevan.

I’m still undecided as to whether to take the plunge and register, so if anyone reading this has been to a previous conference, I’d love to hear about your impressions and what a MSc student might learn from attending.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st July 2014.