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Monday, 27 August, 2001, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
What your writing says about you
A person writing by hand
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

Want to know how Sir Sigmund Warburg, who arrived in the City in 1935 with 5,000, built up a merchant bank sold 60 years later for 860m?

Through the use of handwriting analysis - graphology - apparently. (Well, in addition to boasting outstanding financial nous, and introducing Britain to the art of the hostile takeover)

Prospective employees at SG Warburg, now part of the UBS empire, would have to satisfy not just interviewers but a handwriting expert, who would hope to gain clues from the angle of letters, the roundness of vowels, as to candidates' personalities.

"There was this woman in Switzerland he would use," Lawrence Warner, principal at the International Graphology Association told BBC News Online.

"He was completely sold on it, I hear, and would not hire anyone without asking this lady's opinion."

And considering Sir Sigmund's record, what self-respecting executive could question his championing of graphology?

'Akin to voodoo'

Plenty, it seems. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for managers, has described graphology as "akin to voodoo, with almost no scientific evidence that is of any real use".

The British Psychological Society has dismissed the technique as having "zero predictive validity".

Mr Warner himself admits the technique has yet to receive the prominence he might have hoped.

"Has it?" he replies when asked when graphology took off in the UK.

Reluctant champions

He estimates that fewer than 10% of British firms consult graphologists to gain an extra opinion over the hiring of senior staff.

"Employing the wrong person can be an expensive business, so you want to make sure you do everything you can to put it right."

He quotes one estimate that a wrong appointment can cost the equivalent of two years' salary.

Even those firms which do use, or have used, graphology are often reluctant to admit it.

It took three phone calls to establish that Merrill Lynch Asset Management, which as the independent Mercury Asset Management used graphology, was not only unwilling to comment on the technique, but had in fact stopped employing it.

Pifco, which owns kettle-maker Russell and Hobbs, also declined to reveal whether it still consulted graphologists.

'Black art'

The problem is that graphology, a well-documented process even in Sir Sigmund's time, has yet in Britain to convince the sceptics.

"There is still this perception that it is a black art," Mr Warner said.

But then to demand firm proof of graphology's capabilities is to enter something of a grey area, of judgement based on movement, form and arrangement of writing, slant size and pressure.

"A lot of the evidence for graphology is anecdotal," Mr Warner admits.

Long history

The appreciation of handwriting analysis dates back to at least 1622, and a critique by an Italian scholar.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens: Internet in handwriting analysis

Novelists Charles Dickens and Johann Goethe are among figures who dabbled with the subject, before, in the 1870s, French priest Jean Hypolite Michon opened efforts to establish graphology as science.

A series of academics since have sought to develop subjective and systematic analysis techniques.

Graphology today is based around consideration of a string of features, such as the size of letters, curvature and spacing.

The pen pressure the writer has used is taken as a guide to energy levels, while the slant of letters is seen as an indication of emotionality.

As one observer put it: "Your writing is formed according to impulses from the brain via the nervous system and muscles in your hand.

"Like a seismograph needle, the pen detects and transmits unseen tremors, creating a style of handwriting which is as unique as fingerprints."

'Potential harm'

It is not an argument which cuts much ice at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has undertaken a review of tests on graphology's effectiveness.

The institute concluded that "the scientific data overwhelmingly points to the failure of graphology to demonstrate any real validity.

"Employers considering the use of graphology should be aware of the limitations of the technique, its unreliability and the potential harm this could cause to their business."

Institute adviser Ms Baron urged companies to rely on other assessment techniques.

"The evidence around psychometric testing, for instance, is far better documented.

"There may turn out to be something in graphology, but the case has yet to be proven."

'National psyche'

Try saying that in mainland Europe, however, where the legacy of Father Jean is written large, on French and Dutch landscapes particularly.

Some three quarters of French firms are estimated, albeit by graphologist themselves, to consult handwriting analysts during recruitment.

Whereas in Britain, graphology's fortunes have depended largely on individual champions, such as Sir Sigmund or former Pifco boss Michael Webber, across the Channel handwriting analysis is taken as read.

"It is part of the national psyche there," Mr Warner said. "People expect to have their handwriting tested when applying for a job."

Chance meeting

And it was indeed through contact with France that society jewellery firm Elizabeth Gage, one of graphology's most vocal UK champions, was introduced to the technique.

In the late 1980s, at a business awards ceremony sponsored by French-based champagne producer Veuve Clicquot, Elizabeth Gage executives met a graphologist who offered a free handwriting test.

"It was so astonishingly accurate that we decided to look into graphology further," said chief executive Zoe Simpson.

"Now all our staff are tested. We have found graphology to be incredibly accurate."

Honesty measure

The technique's ability to spot hidden character traits is particularly relevant for a firm dealing with valuable goods, where honesty among staff is an essential characteristic, she said.

"At the time there had been problems in another jewellery store around the corner. One of the staff had tipped someone off."

Graphological studies of handwriting from potential employees had been "uncannily accurate", she added.

"It even goes down to him [the graphologist] mentioning phrases which candidates have used themselves in subsequent interviews."

One candidate assessed as seeming to have been imprisoned, yet showing no criminal tendency, turned out to have been a political refugee.

Another reported to have low energy levels was found just to have recovered from serious illness.

Future test?

So, 130 years after Father Jean embarked on his efforts to prove the validity of handwriting analysis, the jury is still out on the technique's effectiveness.

Some swear by it, some swear at it.

And whichever is right, with less than one-in-10 UK companies consulting graphologists, the chances of most job-seekers encountering a handwriting test are minimal.

Unless, that is, they are applying for work in the kettle-making or upmarket jewellery sectors, or for a job in France, whose economy is, after all, described as the star performer of the eurozone.

It is then that the slants and curves of your scrawl could test your career ambitions.

And no amount of protesting that the dominance of Word and e-mail has affected your ability to write is likely to prove a convincing defence.

See also:

24 May 01 | Sci/Tech
The font of all personality
04 Jun 00 | Education
Fast writers get results
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