Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Inclinations Frozen On Paper

In 1987 psychologists used me as a test subject and analyzed my handwriting as part of considering graphology in a suite of talent-selection tools being considered by the community-destination marketing organization (DMO) I was leading at the time in Alaska.

This occurred a decade after studies began to link signature size with high self-regard and then narcissism but the technique has a long history and has been validated by thousands of researchers.

At the time my handwriting was analyzed, it was reported that 3,000 American corporations were already using the tool to screen new hires, a number that has reportedly transcended 5,000 today. 

However, I was skeptical it would work on me, given a gradually worsening movement disorder called “essential tremor.” The condition had first manifested itself in my right hand when I was a teenager.

By the time of the analysis it was even worse in my left or writing hand.  But the analysis, which is conducted “blind,” worked and very accurately.  Experts, usually psychologists who are trained in graphology, study handwriting as a form of unfiltered body language  but “frozen on paper.”

As we mature, the rules we all learned in school for handwriting gradually become informed by aspects of our temperament, personality, inclinations and unique neurological patterns.  Forensically and in courtrooms, handwriting is much like a fingerprint.

In fact, experts using handwriting analysis have even identified a number of movements common in criminals.  Linked here for instance, is an analysis of the handwriting of executed domestic terrorist and mass bomber Timothy McVeigh done by the company HRC.

In addition to potential as a tool for talent selection, handwriting analysis is used in team building, assessments of leadership or promotional potential, substance abuse detection and even relationship compatibility, the latter of which would have come in handy during my lifetime.

We ended up selecting other tools, but re-reading the analysis of my handwriting nearly 25 years later in retirement reveals in retrospect just how accurate it was.  It confirmed indications of my education level and upbringing, but also pinpointed an inclination to sensitivity, even self-defense.

It identified my tendency to challenge conventional wisdom and an openness to fresh ideas as well as an intensity, a need to participate in change.  It also delved into aspects of my nature such as understanding and tolerance.

The analysis foretold a tireless determination in the pursuit and conversion of ideals to reality, and a strong ego without being narcissistic.  Even more significantly, the analysis accurately notes some vulnerabilities that come with these tendencies.

Earlier in her life, when angry or hurt, my daughter has disputed the part about me not being narcissistic, and always with good reason.  Coincidentally, one of the first studies correlating signature size to self-esteem occurred the year she was born.

At extreme levels, narcissism is a personality disorder but at another level it is a stable personality trait as I learned from a report published a few months ago by researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, which is located in a community just south of where I live in Durham, NC.

Narcissism has been linked to large signature size since the late 1970s but this new study also links narcissism and large CEO signature size to poor performance and also, paradoxically, to larger compensation.

Narcissistic CEOs are not only conceited but overvalue their abilities.  They bring about poorer group decisions “because they dominate the decision process without incorporating feedback or ideas from other group members.”

Ironically, though, these CEOs are also considered more capable by the same group members they dominate during decision processes, resulting a type of closed-feedback-loop.  This is why toleration of dissent is much better than peer loyalty as a gut-check on narcissism.

The study crossed my mind recently as I was leaving a Rotary luncheon at the Durham Convention Center.  My attendance is spotty as best, often bringing puzzled expressions from new members as they spy my past-president name badge.

Dr. Dan Ariely, who teaches at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, had spoken at the luncheon about experiments that show that people are more likely to be dishonest if what they are doing benefits friends and associates.  I suppose this is enabling a sort of group narcissism.

A friend kidded me unmercifully as a little of my own narcissism eked out as we left the building.  Instinctively I glanced quickly back over my shoulder at a portrait that was hung in the Center three months before I retired a few years ago after 21 years as guardian of Durham’s community’s brand and sense of place.

As stand-ins for thousands of people who are even more deserving, a depiction of me in the portrait is shown against the Durham skyline next to Mayor Bill Bell who continues more than three decades as a public official and downtown advocate Bill Kalkhof who is also retiring this year after nearly 20 years of services.

I can’t remember the size of their signatures, but I know they have given their all to Durham, as I tried to do, often at significant personal sacrifice.  I am honored to be in their company.

As I file and store away personal papers, I can see the effects of essential tremor on my signature over time. Eventually, to control the movement in my hands, my signature grew in size.

Many years ago, it became impossible to manage anything other than a large “R” with a line after it.  Today, I can’t even make the “R” and even the line is illegible.

Along with the disappearance of my signature, I guess any narcissist tendencies I may have had must have receded in retirement because my daughter frequently kids me with a big smile by saying,

“Who are you and what have you done with my dad?”

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