title for Physiognomy note
home | about | site use | resources | publications | timeline   spacer graphic  








related pages icon

Identity &
Identity Crime

related pages icon


section heading icon    overview

This note considers some of the pseudo-sciences used by enthusiasts to purportedly ascertain character.

It covers -

It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding Identity and Biometrics.


Individuals and organisations have engaged in 'personality assessment' since the dawn of history, seeking to determine an individual's -

  • 'character' (eg honesty, bravery, diligence, loyalty and initiative),
  • aptitudes and affinities (eg verbal and mathematical skills, creativity, attention to detail, sexuality) and
  • experience (eg acquisition of expertise through academic education and participation in the workforce, success in business rather than bankruptcy, inclusion in an offender register).

Assessment has sometimes been based on the individual's possession of documentation (or merely the right kind of uniform) and on a resume, although official documents can be forged, resumes can be embellished or simply fabricated and two millennia of identity scams demonstrate that signifiers of legitimacy such as gold braid or a clipboard can be readily acquired.

Not all assessment involves formal vetting, given that much social interaction does not permit the delays and financial burden associated with verification of a person's claims by checking of curriculum vitae, credit reference databases or recourse to an information broker. It may not be financial in nature, with some people wanting to mimimise unhappiness by choosing an appropriate partner through a dating service.

People have often relied on one or more pseudo-scientific mechanisms to ascertain what an individual has done in the past, what that individual may (or indeed will) do in the future, and what is that person's 'character'.

Those mechanisms embody enduring popular perceptions that

  • character can be discerned by an expert (or merely by a novice who has the right key),
  • character is essentially unchanging ("know the past and you know the future") and
  • an individual's "true nature" can be read despite the person's efforts to disguise undesirable attributes or hide stigmatised experience.

They have been accepted by private/public sector organisations and individuals, despite the lack of a empirical basis and despite the consequent strong scepticism on the part of scientists and parts of the community.

That acceptance is of interest for what it reveals about identity and authority in particular cultures, including anxieties about minorities. It is also of interest as the basis for a range of commercial service providers, from newspaper publishers offering daily horoscopes to graphologists claiming to reliably reveal through examination of handwriting whether an individual is gay, destined to be a failure as a saleswoman or is an axe-wielding serial killer.

The following pages discuss six past and contemporary pseudo-sciences regarding the determination of character (and even of destiny).

Those pseudo-sciences are -

  • physiognomy - determining an individual's character and aptitudes through examination of that person's face
  • phrenology - determining the same qualities through 'reading' the shape, size and distribution of bumps on the person's skull
  • palmistry - determining character (and fate) through scrutiny of the lines and bumps in a person's hand
  • blood type psychology - determining the qualities through reference to their blood group (eg Type A or Type O)
  • astrology - determining capability and fate through reference to the conjunction of astral objects such as the planet Mars or the influence of the Sun
  • graphology - determining character and capacity through scrutiny of the person's handwriting, ie the shape and spacing of words and letters rather than syntax.

They are pseudo- rather than real sciences because they mistake causation for correlation, omit alternative explanations, are subjective, are founded on demonstrably incorrect data (eg the sun does not revolve around the earth) and fail basic tests of empirical falsifiability. Different practitioners for example supply sharply divergent interpretations when supplied with 'blind' data. Individual practitioners supply different results when provided with the same data on different occasions.

All rely on the audience filling in gaps - reports from practitioners are typically vague and dependent on cues provided to the practitioner - and omitting inconvenient information. All are culturally determined, with blood type psychology for example enjoying a following in Japan (and among New Age devotees in California), graphology accepted in France but largely derided in Australia, phrenology consigned to the drearier wastes of academic discourse about fin-de-siecle medicine and popular culture).

Ultimately, they involve psychological processes that are akin to religious belief. The commitment of some audiences - unfazed by the nonsensical nature of particular reports or the principles underlying specific mechanisms - is accordingly reflected in the vehemence with which the mechanisms are defended, the resistance of the 'true believers' to alternate explanations or fundamental flaws in handling of data and a deterministic attitude to fate that would gladden the hearts of John Knox's gloomier followers.

If you are convinced that your star sign tells what is going to happen (and deprives you of meaningful agency), that the size of a person's eyes or earlobe shape reliably signals sexual preference and honesty, or that the way someone dots the 'i's and crosses the 't's definitively reveals that person's true nature, you are unlikely to be persuaded by criticisms in works cited in the following pages.

Others may recognise contemporary enthusiasms for chiromancy and graphology as the latest manifestations of crises of faith (and commercial exploitation) that produced Theosophy, Scientology, Anthroposophy, the Order of the Golden Temple and anxieties about flying saucers crewed by BEMs.

     pseudo-science and the law

Australian law does not privilege graphology, astrology and other pseudo-sciences, contrary to claims by some enthusiasts.

Secularisation over the past century has meant that practice of those 'arts' is not prohibited by statute and common law, although practice is bounded by law regarding fraud, trade practices, discrimination, investment, medical services and evidence.

Vendors of horoscopes and palmistry services thus typically rely on the argument that consumers are aware that they are receiving an entertainment product (rather than financial advice for which the vendor could be held accountable) or that the activity has a religious basis and accordingly should not be regulated. Practitioners are not legitimised through registration with and supervision by bodies such as the Australian Securities & Invesment Commission (ASIC) and Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority.

Graphologists similarly now claim to discern 'character' - and to a lesser extent cognitive or other capacities - but are typically careful to disavow provision of medical advice.

Practice is not specifically recognised by law. Courts for example do not accord practitioners a special status (comparable to medical practitioners, lawyers and other experts whose authority ultimately derives from some form of state certification and registration). Reliance on graphology, astrology or phrenology as a definitive demonstration of character has not been accepted by Australian federal and state/territory courts.

Unsurprisingly there are only a handful of references to the pseudo-sciences - typically mentioned in passing along with necromancy and 'junk science' such as creationism - in the law reports of the past fifty years.

That has meant that individuals are free to consult practitioners for purported insights about themselves and that some organisations in Australia - like their overseas counterparts - on occasion rely on the pseudo-sciences for decisions about recruitment, promotion and training of staff. In principle sorting of people on the basis of pseudo-sciences is likely to be covered by state/territory and federal discrimination law. It is difficult to see, for example, how possession of a specific blood group or ear with a specific whorl could be considered an inherent requirement of a job.

     one born every day?

One reader of this page commented that the mechanisms are fascinating as illustrations of the so-called Barnum Effect, a phenomenon in which people willingly accept personality interpretations that comprise vague statements and that are supposedly founded on an assessment procedure that relies on the interpreter's expertise.

'Acceptance of Personality Interpretations: The 'Barnum Effect' and Beyond' by Charles Snyder, Randee Shenkel & Carol Lowery in 45(1) Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1977) 104-114 offers a perspective from clinical practice in arguing that

Acceptance is enhanced by some factors that are inherent in the clinical situation: The interpretation is delivered as being (a) specifically developed for that particular client, (b) derived from the results of psychological assessment techniques, and (c) interpreted by a high-status clinician. Additionally, the interpretation is more likely to be favorably received if the feedback is brief, ambiguous, and does not effectively identify ways in which the client is different from the majority of the human population. Furthermore, subjects not only accept Barnum interpretations, but they also increase their faith in psychological tests and see the experimenter clinician as being more skilled as a result of receiving such feedback ... Finally, this acceptance phenomenon is amplified when one considers that the insecurity of a typical client in the actual clinical setting may render him or her even more acceptant to diagnostic feedback than the college subjects who served in the Barnum experiments.

It is complemented by Barry Beyerstein's 1995 'Distinguising Science From Pseudoscience' report for the Centre for Curriculum & Professional Development (Vancouver).

A more acerbic comment might be Barnum's observation that there's "one born every day": people want to believe and readily embrace explanations that are delivered with authority, that eliminate complexity (a "key to the hidden patterns of the universe") and that reduce responsibility ("your fate is written in the stars" ... or in the lines on your palm, the bumps on your skull, the size of your nose or the way you form the 'g's and 't's in a handwritten script).


Points of entry to the literature include Race, Racism and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History (London: Routledge 1997) by Graham Richards, Science in the New Age: the Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers and American Culture (Madison: Uni of Wisconsin Press 1993) by David Hess, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (London: Fourth Estate 2004) by Francis Wheen, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time (New York: Holt 2002) by Michael Shermer, The Psychology of Superstition (London: Allen Lane 1967) by Gustav Jahoda, The Mismeasurement of Man (New York: Norton 1981) by Stephen Gould, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Leiden: Brill 1996) by Wouter Hanegraaff and The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves (New York: Free Press 2004) by Annie Paul.

icon for link to next page   next page (physiognomy)

this site
the web




version of November 2008
© Bruce Arnold
caslon.com.au | caslon analytics