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BEYOND SCIENCE?: Paper Personality

What does your signature say about you? Is there a scientific basis for handwriting analysis? Reputable psychologists say no, but as you see on Frontiers, graphologists claim personality traits are revealed by such features as size and slant. This information is sometimes used to judge job and loan applicants. Host Alan Alda offers his handwriting as part of a test to determine if there is any validity to this method of character analysis.

Curriculum Links
Activities: Sympathetic Magic and the Barnum Effect



scientific process


magic thinking,


Like palm reading and astrology, graphology relies on something called sympathetic magic. As we see on Frontiers, in sympathetic magic, "like begets like." For example, a long line running diagonally across one's palm is said to predict a long life. A broken line on the palm indicates a life cut short.

Following the same line of thought, graphologists analyze handwriting to interpret personality traits. The shape, size and style of the writing is said to reflect personality. Using this interpretation, a large, sprawling signature might indicate a strong ego and an extroverted character, while handwriting that is cramped and tiny is said to be associated with a very shy individual. Handwriting that slants to the right is interpreted as being written by a person who is outgoing, while handwriting that slants to the left reflects reserve.


Design and evaluate scientific experiments.


  1. Watch this episode of Frontiers and design an experiment to test how well handwriting matches or reflects personality.

    One way to set up such a test would be to take random samples of handwriting from people in your class (have someone else set up a code so the "graphologists" do not know who wrote the samples), prepare an "analysis" based on handwriting samples, and then compare the analysis to see if personality traits match up or if people recognize themselves in the descriptions. You'll find popular books on graphology in the library.

  2. Something called the "Barnum effect" also comes into play in these situations. That is, people can convince themselves that a description applies. Psychologist Ray Hyman demonstrates this with palm reading in the introduction to the program. A similar phenomenon happens in astrology. How often have you read your horoscope in a newspaper or magazine and said, "That's me!"? This is the Barnum effect at work.

    Try reading other horoscopes to see if they apply to you as well. Or, set up a test in which several students are given the same horoscope. Does the horoscope seem to "fit"? Another way to test the Barnum effect would be to cut out a number of horoscopes and distribute them without indicating which astrological sign is being read. Find out how many "fit" when you tell students they're reading their own horoscopes and when you tell students the horoscopes are distributed at random.

  3. Discuss the pros and cons of using handwriting analysis in a job application process. Would you want your handwriting used as the basis of a personality profile? Is it fair for employers to conduct an analysis on a writing sample without your knowledge? Explain.

  4. Compare graphology with the way handwriting analysis is used in forensics.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.