Graphology as a legitimate clinical science
Ali Schwabe | Fulcrum Staff
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
What if someone took a look at your class notes and suddenly knew you were bulimic? What if they saw your signature and were able to tell you the career you’re best suited for? Graphology is the science of analyzing handwriting and connecting it to human psychology, and although the practice is not sophisticated enough to diagnose eating disorders or predict professional success, it’s pretty darn close.
What have I gotten myself into?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to undergo a projective personality assessment. Annette Poizner, the Toronto-based registered social worker and psychotherapist who analyzed my writing, had sent me an email out of the blue: she explained that she uses clinical graphology in her practice. She wrote to me hoping to bring it to attention in North America, where it is used less commonly than in places across Europe and in Israel as a tool in the field of mental health
I was open-minded but skeptical. How much can a person’s handwriting actually reveal about their personality and psychology? If graphology is a legitimate science, why hadn’t I ever heard about it before?
Poizner, who holds an MA in social work from Columbia University and a PhD in education specializing in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto, had me complete, scan, and email her a number of different handwritten works. I drew a detailed picture of a tree, wrote out a page outlining what I did that day, wrote down my 10 earliest childhood memories, and sent her a few copies of my signature.
A few days later I gave Poizner a call, and with only those four pages to go off of, she presented me with a shockingly accurate assessment.
It began with flattery.
“You’re a rich character; I call you gifted with a range of skills and interests,” said Poizner. “You have lots going on. For example, on one hand, you’re highly organized. On another level you have strong concentration skills, you’re highly disciplined, and you have high standards.”
As she spoke she described the vocations I would be best suited for, suggesting I could be very effective in an administrative role or as a librarian, but that I also had the ability and intelligence to become a doctor. But not just any doctor, Poizner warned.
“One thing I would say is you would be not good as the emergency doctor—right?”
My response was a jaw drop in immediate recognition that she was right—I don’t handle crises well and am known to make bad decisions if I don’t have time to think things through.
Poizner explained how my handwriting revealed this aspect of my personality.
“You are very detail-oriented; you’re a slow, thorough type; you are logical, processing one detail and fact at a time in a linear way,” she said. “You’re a detail lover who loves to go slow… Look at your “I” dots, oh my goodness. Some of them are careful little dots. Think of what it takes to make a perfect circle “I” dot, as opposed to somebody who’s in a rush—[their dot] tends to be a slash because they don’t have the patience.”
What’s the point?
Poizner has experienced clinical success using graphology in her psychotherapy practice, where she works primarily with individuals dealing with anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and other struggles with mental health. She believes the key is to not rely solely on graphology, or any other tool in her arsenal.
“Because people are so fundamentally expressive of their patterns, we can have them do virtually anything, and as clinicians we can become trained observers,” she explained. “So if it’s handwriting, we can do that—dream interpretation, analyzing memories, getting people to make a drawing for you—there’s a myriad of things you can do. The most important thing is to not just rely on one tool. You bring all the data together and then you get some soft ideas. Then you say, ‘Let’s see if these themes are meaningful to the client,’ and then you have that discussion with them.”
Naturally, everything she told me at the beginning of our interview was welcomed. It’s not exactly hard to believe an assessment is right when the assessor tells you you’re brilliant and well suited to be a doctor. Poizner recognized this. She explained that when you give general information to an individual and they see it as very accurate about them specifically, it’s called the Barnum effect.
“If you give your average university student feedback based on a personality test; [if] you give everybody the same results: ‘You are intelligent, responsible, etc.’ and you include an issue, i.e., ‘You tend to judge yourself too critically’ or something, all of the students will agree that there was a high degree of accuracy,” she explained.
Poizner has witnessed her clients having “Ah-ha!” moments of self-recognition when she performs analyses, and doesn’t believe it’s simply the Barnum effect. The longer we spoke, the more I had to agree with her. She pinpointed a number of my traits—traits that just couldn’t apply to everyone.
How’d she know?
The first thing she said to convince me that this wasn’t some quack science occurred at minute 12 of our discussion.
“I will definitely say that you are here to be a mother,” she stated.
Sure, lots of women are interested in having children in the future, but it’s something I’ve been looking very, very forward to for a long time. My friends and patient boyfriend will all tell you I’m baby-crazy.
Poizner went on.
“You are a sweet, interested person and you like to anticipate positive things. It comes from the handwriting; it’s a classic, conservative, conventional handwriting,” said Poizner. “The middle zone of the handwriting is the zone of the heart of the real physical world—things like cooking, or making a nice home. The middle zone is a letter M or an O—you are a dominant middle zone writer, so you’d be quite happy to do all those homey things.”
Our conversation went on for over an hour, and she continued to accurately tell me things about myself.
She recognized that I’m a people person, but knows I’m an introvert at heart. She told me she was able to determine this through the small size of my handwriting and through my signature; I abbreviate the A of my first name, and then carefully spell out my last. She said this was a sign of reservation, since the first name represents the personal self and the last name represents the public or professional self.
Without knowing my background or family structure, she called out that I was an eldest child.
“You are a conservative traditionalist. Your handwriting is classically seen with teachers, who are often the parental child. The eldest is called the parental child, who represents the parents’ message and authority,” she said.
The longer we spoke, the more willing she became to delve into deeper themes she found in my assessment. Poizner became more frank and less flattering—but always accurate.
She explained how the neatness of my writing demonstrates my need to please and desire to follow directions. She said I’m motivated by society’s parameters of success, not my own. Once again, she hit the nail on the head. I am embarrassingly obsessed with my grades, following rubrics to a T. I keep track of how many miles I can run, and I thrive off of strong performance evaluations at work. Poizner called me out as a classic good girl and knew only from the materials I sent to her how much I revere hierarchies.
The final aspect that convinced me she was gaining legitimate insights was when she began talking about my emotional maturity.
“You have the emotions of a child—that’s why you go into all this self-control, because you’re kind of holding back,” she said. “You need to grow up.”
As insulted as I was, I recognized a grain of truth in what she said. And when I spoke with my parents and friends afterward, they were quick to agree with Poizner and point out specific examples of the qualities she had described in me.
What’s next for graphology?
All in all, I was convinced. I had an hour-long conversation with a stranger who, by looking at my writing, reading my 10 earliest memories, and examining my drawing of a tree, knew me almost as well as my closest friends. While graphology is a cool party trick (one that Poizner did perform at parties, back in the day), she is quick to point out its practical, therapeutic merits. In fact, she’s written a whole book on them and the science of graphology, called Clinical Graphology: An Interpretive Manual for Mental Health Practitioners, which she’s hoping will improve North American awareness on the topic.
“Let’s say I’m your therapist. I’ve just met you, I collected all this stuff from you in the first meeting, and on this basis I know a whole bunch,” Poizner said. “If I want to do a therapeutic process, then I’ve just circumvented the next five getting-to-know-you sessions, and I can start very quickly doing an intervention … Imagine if you were a Pilates instructor; I took a look at you, I looked at your posture, I watched you use your muscles, I know where the imbalances are—now let’s go to work. Now I can be very targeted in what we do.”
Poizner knows something the skeptics don’t—whether you are aware of it or not, your true self comes through in the way you write.
So what does your handwriting reveal? Probably more than you think.
What does your handwriting say about you?
Use these graphological interpretation principles provided by Annette Poizner to interpret your own handwriting.
Some writers write a script that is perfectly vertical, which is called an upright slant. This writing is objective, formal, and poised; and so too will be the writer. The upright slant writer is more reserved—he or she looks at a situation from the sideline, then decides how emotionally involved to become.
Writing that leans to the left reveals a writer even more strongly reserved than one who uses the upright slant. This person is usually introverted and highly private. This person also tends to hold their cards close to their chest.
Teeny little writing
Very small writing is an expression of introversion. It is the writing of somebody with strong concentration skills, increased intelligence—because concentration always improves intelligence—and humility. If the writing is significantly flattened out or tight, it might indicate some type of repression or inhibition. I’ve seen librarians who write like this.
Large spaces between words
Normally there should be only one character width between one word and the next; more than this implies somebody who has difficulty bridging the emotional gap between themselves and others. This person is distant from their own emotions as well as those of others.
Small spaces between words
Words that are too close together, separated by spaces of less than one character width, can show that an individual is needy. This is the writing of a person who crowds others.
Loops are the avenue of emotions—my teacher used to say that. The more loops you see, the more emotionality in the personality. Also, rounded writing shows more visual interest in beauty or beautifying the environment. These people tend to shape letters by being very true to the letter form. They honour how something should look, and want their writing to look nice. These people often have a sensitivity for dressing well, interior design, and the like.
Angular writing shows someone who is more detached, analytical, and objective. It’s usually the writing of engineers, scientists, and people who are tough-minded and think about issues without troubling over emotions. These writers strip down their handwriting and don’t care about the form of the letters that much. They abbreviate the letters. These are dispassionate people and tend to be all-or-nothing types: black-or-white thinkers.
Sometimes we see a handwriting that is fairly rigid and perfectionist, that looks like it came right out of the typewriter. These people are demonstrating through their handwriting a repressive nature which has them potentially suffering from compulsive symptoms and pandering too much to what others think of them. These are the perfectionists. They love to do things right, and tend to also be very control-oriented and have difficulty being spontaneous or just relaxing. They tend to suffer from muscular tension.
Printscript occurs when the writer sometimes prints and sometimes writes in cursive. This is an expression of intuition and writing ability. When I assess journalists, most use printscript.
For some writers, the lower zone of one line intermingles with the upper zone of the line below—the bottom loop of a “Y” would hit the top of a “T” in the line below it. This is called crashing, and is indicative of an individual who daydreams, often watching an internal TV.
When the baseline—the line of the text as it moves across the page—is firm and straight, the person writing tends to be very reliable with a strong work ethic. A wavy baseline indicates moodiness, potential difficulties with discipline, and possible medical issues.
How fast is the handwriting written? Carefully formed letters, and strong attention to dots above letters and other details indicates a writer who prefers to be slow and thorough. Messy writing which races across the page? The individual works at a fast tempo. They may not be great with detail, but they prefer to be busy, dynamic, multitasking—they like lots going on.