When you sign your name, do you like to fill the available space with bold strokes or is your personal scribble a more modest mark? A group of psychologists from Uruguay, the Netherlands and Curaçao say that the answer could be a sign of your personality – from analysing the traits and signatures of 192 women and 148 men (psych students in Uruguay), they found that men and women with bigger signatures tended to score higher on “social dominance” – measured by agreement with statements like “I certainly have self confidence” and “I am not shy with strangers”. Among women only, a bigger signature also correlated with narcissism – agreement with claims like “I am a special person” and “I am going to be a great person”. Signature size was not correlated with self esteem or aggressive dominance, which is more about controlling other people for self-serving reasons.
If true, these results, published recently in the Journal of Research in Personality, would appear to provide some support for the quack field of graphology – the idea that our handwriting style reveals our personality (listed as one of the 50 great myths of psychology in the book by Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues, based in part on a decisive meta-analysis of the area published by Geoffrey Dean in 2002). But the authors of the new research are careful to argue that it is signatures specifically, not handwriting more generally, that may be revealing of personality, precisely because they are such a personal form of self expression.
Sceptics may take some convincing, but consider that previous findings have also suggested signatures have a special psychological significance, including a study that showed people are more honest in a document when they sign it at the beginning rather than the end, presumably because their signature activates attention to their sense of self.
The new findings also add to other research linking signature styles with personality, including a paper from 1988 that found women who embellished their signatures with lines and exclamation points scored higher on narcissism, and another from 2014 that found CEOs with bigger signatures tended to receive higher salaries, but their companies performed worse. There’s even research that showed boosting people’s self-esteem, by giving them inflated feedback on an IQ test, led them to produce a larger signature.
Alvaro Mailhos and his colleagues say their study is an advance on the existing literature because they used three different measures of signature size – essentially based on the area of the smallest possible rectangle than can be placed around the scribble, either on a horizontal or at an angle, or based on the space filled by a curved outline drawn round the scribble.
They also controlled for complicating factors such as the size and number of individual characters in the person’s name, and signature style such as signing with one’s initials or a simple stylistic flourish. Importantly, they also showed that only signature size and not the size of one’s printed name was linked with social bravado and narcissism, likely because printing your name is less personal and expressive.
The correlations between signature size and social dominance and narcissism (in women) were modest in size (the beta coefficients in a regression were 0.12 and 014, respectively) but given they held across the different measures of size and after controlling for confounds, the researchers suggested their findings are robust and meaningful.
“We unambiguously demonstrate a link between personality traits and signature size, and also, in so doing, we offer a robust methodological approach to study the relationship between handwritten gestures and psychological traits that could be of value for further research,” they concluded.
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