Barely an hour after he was sworn in as president, Donald Trump scrawled his name at the bottom of a clutch of cream-colored documents: an executive order “minimizing the economic burden” of the Affordable Care Act, his nominations for his Cabinet positions, legislation allowing retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. It’s a tight, controlled signature in dark felt-tip pen, with strong upward strokes and little space between the letters; “DonaldJTrump” runs together — bold, upright and jagged.
The response was immediate. On Twitter, the signature was said to be the EKG of a tachycardia patient, a graph of an earthquake or a failed polygraph test , a “sound wave of demons screaming,” Charlie Brown’s shirt, “an ugly piece of work.” Katy Waldman at Slate described it as the “impressionistic output of some rudimentary machine,” while the article’s headline declared the “horrifying” signature a “cry for help.”
Some experts — graphologists, people who have been trained to examine handwriting for markers of personality — were no less harsh. “His signature is this barbed-wire thing that’s into power and control and rigidity,” said Sheila Lowe, a Ventura, Calif., handwriting analyst with more than 40 years of experience in this small field. “It’s closed, it’s not open, it’s not soft at all and it looks like Himmler’s.” As in Heinrich Himmler, head of Adolf Hitler’s SS and the man who established the first official concentration camp at Dachau.
Lowe first came across Trump’s handwriting and signature in the 1990s and has been keeping a professional eye on it since. “Handwriting changes over time in people who grow and change. . . . It’s like a road map of who you were,” she said. Trump’s handwriting, she said, has remained largely consistent for the last 20 years. “He’s the same person he was all those years ago — an empty narcissist.”
Lowe continues, “There’s absolutely no softness in his signature, it’s just mean and tough and rigid, and there is no room for anybody else. He’s not interested in anyone else’s opinion. It’s like a big fence” — a wall? — “yes, and he hides behind it. He’s afraid of being seen.”
There are a lot of people who might agree with that analysis — millions of them marched in protests around the world the day after he inked his first signatures as president — but it’s far from clear that Trump’s signature shows what writing analysts think.
Graphologists, of course, say our handwriting reveals truth. “Handwriting reveals the inner working of the mind of the writer,” British Institute of Graphologists spokeswoman Elaine Quigley explains in an e-mail. “It is ‘brainwriting,’ and it can reveal the feelings, anxieties, happiness, or misery, the ability to handle stress, or not, and the strength, or not, to come out of negative and into positive.”
Essentially, how you write — whether you’re fast or slow, how you dot your i’s and cross your t’s, which way your letters slant — corresponds to thousands of character traits, which, when taken together, form a clearer picture of who you are. “All these features have been researched over many years and put into practice to prove their worth,” says Quigley, a graphologist herself.
Graphology has its roots in ancient writings, but histories of graphology tend to start with Camillo Baldi, a philosopher and minor Bolognese nobleman who wrote a treatise entitled “How to recognize from a letter the nature and quality of a writer” in 1622. It wasn’t until around 1868, however, that the study got the name “graphologie,” courtesy of French Catholic priest Jean-Hippolyte Michon. He was among the first to try to turn the subject into a science. By the start of the 20th century, graphology had a growing number of adherents and significant interest from scientific and philosophical circles; Alfred Binet, one of the major figures in early psychology, was a fan, allegedly hailing it as the “science of the future.”
As those who studied it learned more, the system of graphology began to take shape, correlating specific, isolated elements of handwriting to observed personality characteristics. Graphology, though still more popular in Europe, began to catch on in Britain and the United States from the turn of the century, and got a boost during World War II with the exodus of graphologists from Nazi-controlled countries, according to Quigley.
Study and certification of graphology was, even in Binet’s time, and largely still is conducted via correspondence courses and distance learning. Despite the increased availability of graphology courses, however, the number of practicing, full-time graphologists has remained small. Lowe, who is also the president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, suggested that there are fewer than 100 full-time graphologists working in America, and there are only 26 names listed in the British Institute of Graphologists’ directory of members. For analysts, it’s not a straightforward career path.
Lowe said that half of her income comes from document examination, a distinct but related field that investigates suspected forgeries; the rest comes from lecturing, book writing (she’s the author of a murder mystery series about a forensic handwriting analyst, as well as “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis”), and a fraction from personality analysis for corporations and private investigators.
But there might be another reason why graphology remains a small field. To put it bluntly, “graphology and handwriting analysis is complete nonsense, pseudoscience, bunkum,” declares prominent American skeptic Michael Shermer. “There’s absolutely nothing to it whatsoever.” He debunked the claims of graphologists for Skeptic Magazine and for a television program in the early 2000s. (Notably, Lowe was one of the graphologists he spoke to.) And he is certainly not alone.
After graphology gained credibility in the first half of the 20th century, psychologists began examining its claims more deeply. By the end of the 20th century, evidence gathered from dozens of studies all underscored the same thing: Although handwriting is unique to the individual, there is no demonstrable, predictive link between handwriting and personality traits.
“The idea that you can read someone’s personality from their handwriting, it’s got an intuitive plausibility, you can see that maybe it would be true. But it just turns out it isn’t,” said professor Chris French, founder of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London, adding that just about the one thing you can tell about a person from their handwriting, with about 70 percent accuracy, is their gender. Several studies used established personality profiles, including the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire and the Myers-Briggs, and found that trained graphologists were unable to predict a subject’s scores based on their writing samples.
Graphology is vulnerable to all sorts of cognitive biases. For example, the analysis of Trump’s signature is biased by what the analyst already knows or thinks about Trump, whose public persona is very well-known; this is what’s called “confirmation bias.” French also noted that because handwriting analysts are often analyzing written material that is personal to the individual, they may be making assessments based on content as well as form.
“Subjective validation” is another bias: While Lowe noted that she’s virtually never had someone reject her analysis of their handwriting, people can find ways to make a graphologist’s claims fit. It’s also called the Barnum effect, named for the famous showman who said his spectacle had something for everyone; or the Forer effect, after the psychologist who first demonstrated it using newspaper horoscopes. “Most people are kind of a complex mix: If the graphologist says at times you’re an extrovert, you’ll remember the times you were the life and soul of the party,” said French.
Science’s dismissal of graphology is nothing new to Lowe and other handwriting analysts. Lowe, who pointed to papers she’s written with more accepting psychologists, suggested, “Maybe [the skeptics] haven’t read the right studies? They may be psychologists, but have they studied handwriting, do they know what they’re talking about?” Eileen Page, a Scituate handwriting analyst who entered the field full time in 1996, said that she used to get on her “soapbox,” but no longer bothers. “I don’t spend a lot of time trying to defend it anymore because I know it works, and the people who hire me know it works, and I’m not out to convert the world,” she explained.
Given that established science roundly rejects graphology, why do lay people still give it credence? Why do an unknown number of corporations still hire graphologists? Shermer — and the British Psychological Society, which has given graphology a “zero validity” rating — puts graphology in the same class as astrology. (For the record, Trump is a Gemini and, according to several astrologists, is a “born rabble-rouser.”) And like astrology, graphology feels comfortingly simple in an unpredictable world.
But, ultimately, it seems like the best way to learn anything about Trump’s character from his signature is to look at what he’s putting it on.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.