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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 February, 2005, 11:34 GMT
Writing wrongs
By Jonathan Duffy and Giles Wilson
BBC News Magazine

See Bill Gates' doodle

Experts said some doodles revealed lots about Tony Blair - until it was discovered they were drawn by Bill Gates. So how seriously should we take the study of handwriting?

A flick through last weekend's newspapers should have been an illuminating experience for anyone interested in learning more about Tony Blair.

Graphologists - handwriting experts - had been invited by some of the press to analyse a sheet of paper containing doodles by the prime minister during a meeting at last week's World Economic Forum.

Some of the results made alarming reading. According to a graphologist consulted by the Times, Mr Blair's use of triangles represented a "death wish", symbolic, she said, of "the risk to his political career".

Elaine Quigley, a graphologist consulted by the Daily Mirror, thought the scribbles showed "the Blair Flair at work without the overlay of public performance". The circling of words was, she said, a sign of the prime minister's "quick mind and ability to turn on the spot and come up with a fluent answer".

Conversely, graphologist Helen Taylor, quoted in the Independent, found the badly formed circles revealed "an inability to complete tasks".

The only blot in the copybook came later when Number 10 disowned the doodles. The scribbles of this reckless, struggling incompetent were actually the work of fellow delegate Bill Gates, who as founder of Microsoft is possibly the world's most successful self-made businessman.

Job interview
Many employers use handwriting tests in recruitment
All of which leaves an even bigger question mark hanging over the already controversial practice of handwriting analysis.

The art of interpreting the squiggles, strokes and spacing of someone's scrawl has moved from an end-of-pier sideshow into the boardrooms of British companies in recent years.

About 3,000 businesses in the UK use graphology as part of their recruitment procedures, weeding out unsuitable candidates through the messages contained in the handwriting.

Debbie Smith, team leader of the secretarial division at recruitment consultants Joslin Rowe, says while many employers use psychometric testing, in the last 18 months there has been a noticeable increase in those using graphological tests too.

"Our clients tend to use it on maybe the second or third round of interviews. [Candidates] would be asked to write something down which would then be analysed," she says.

Applicants are made aware that their handwriting sample is to be examined, she says. But not all are happy about it.

Zero rating

"There's been a mixed response, and I think that depends on the level of candidate that you are. For more junior people, they might think that if they haven't got much work experience that a handwriting test might show another side to them and help them get the job.

It's very seductive because at a very crude level someone who is neat and well behaved tends to have neat handwriting
Dr Rowan Bayne

"Senior people, however, might think: 'I've got x experience already, why should my handwriting influence whether they want to give me the job?'"

The kinds of indicators employers are looking for are whether candidates are team players, how they would handle stress, what they would think in different situations, how they deal with people, she says.

But not everyone approves.

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".

"It's very seductive because at a very crude level someone who is neat and well behaved tends to have neat handwriting."

Dr Bayne says his tests were approved by the graphologists taking part beforehand and formed part of published academic research.

"Before, I was quite well disposed to it. But when you are making very serious, life-changing decisions about people you should use methods that have evidence that support the technique."

British disdain

Although graphology is said to date back several thousand years, its modern strain was developed in France in the latter half of the 19th Century.

Squiggles, strokes, spacing - the key to someone's character?
Graphologist Erik Rees says today it is taught on the Continent as part of psychology degrees. But the British have always been sniffy, perhaps, he speculates, because it was brought to the UK by refugees between the wars.

"They used it as a way of making ends meet, so it became known as a bit of fun. As a parlour game rather than a serious science," he says.

Its reputation has been further damaged by impostors, and the Blair-Gates mix-up "hasn't helped matters" says Mr Rees, who has a long list of firms which use him when recruiting staff.

Graphology, he says, should not be used in isolation, but with other techniques, such as psychometric tests and interviews, it can give a valuable insight into someone's true character. The Blair-Gates example is unfair he says, because it was not done under scientific conditions.

"Handwriting is the unplanned reflex movements of the brain. If you had to write with a pen in your mouth or between your toes, your style would still be the same."

A skilled graphologist, he says, can identify a wide variety of character traits, including creativity, nervousness, sincerity, ambition, lying, tenacity and ability to work with others.

Whether they can distinguish between the handwriting of the world's most successful businessman and a prime minister is another question.

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