On the heels of the hullaballoo surrounding Jack Lew's penmanship—should the treasury secretary nominee be confirmed, U.S. currency will feature his cartoonish loop-de-loop of a signature—and National Handwriting Week (yes, you read that correctly), U.S. News wondered what, if anything, can be learned from chicken scratch.
The short answer: depends on whom you ask.
Graphology, the craft of deducing one's character traits by handwriting analysis, holds that tremendous insight can be gleaned about a person by taking the sum total of myriad variables like letter size, stroke pressure, the slant of the script, and its position on a page.
"There's about 5,000 different things that handwriting can reveal," says Kathi McKnight, a Colorado-based graphologist. Among them, she says, are everything from "who is wounded in love, to who has high self esteem and determination, to who is wracked with self doubt." Psychologists, for example, work with McKnight to help them "get to the heart of things with a patient more quickly and deeply," and teachers can use graphology to spot signs of depression in children, she says.
"Everyone learned how to write the same (way) and yet no two people write alike, and one has to wonder why is that—and it's because it's actually 'brainwriting,' instead of handwriting," McKnight says.
While the hand may transmit the message, it's coming from the brain, explains Sheila Kurtz, president of Graphologyconsulting.com in New York City.
As for Lew's signature?
"The handwriting is so purposefully loopy and odd that there must be a good story behind it, which Mr. Lew hasn't yet publicly revealed," Kurtz says. Signatures, in fact, don't make the best samples for analysis since they're often carefully constructed, Kurtz explains. In Lew's case, it looks "like a logotype," she says. "It shows what the writer wants others to see, not always what may truly be."
Whether handwriting reflects the machinations of the brain is one thing. But the extent to which it reflects someone's character is another.
And that's where graphology gets very tricky, since it's used in such pivotal decisions as hiring personnel.
Such analysis "should not be used for anything that tries to assert a personality characteristic to handwriting. There is just no research that backs that up," says Arend Van Gemmert, who is studying handwriting to detect problems and associations in fine motor skills at Louisiana State University. "If you look at handwriting, what it can show you is if somebody has, for example, some problem with movement." But even then, one should "try to use it as part of the whole diagnostic battery, not just the handwriting itself."
Mike Aamodt, an industrial-organizational psychologist with DCI Consulting Group, a Washington, D.C.-based human resources firm, also noted the lack of research supporting graphology's value.
"From what I can tell from the literature, it doesn't seem to predict anything," Aamodt says. "The graphologists are probably pretty good at being able to pick out the features" of handwriting, but "their interpretation I think of what that means is probably questionable."
Both Aamodt and Van Gemmert pointed out research published in 2003 in the International Journal of Testing that challenged the role of graphology in personnel decisions. Researchers with the University of Western Ontario's psychology department found that the content of one's writing—whether or not it's autobiographical—influenced the analysis of graphologists. But in either case, graphology was considered less valid than "other more commonly used personnel selection methods." The paper concludes with a position statement, which says: "Although the use of handwriting analysis in making personnel selection decisions has a very long history, the evidence available to date fails to support this practice."
In any case, plenty of people swear by the practice—even as handwriting itself seems to be a lost art amid the age of electronics.