Tuesday, June 8, 2010

True and False Handwriting

by Andrea Campbell

Years ago I studied handwriting for several years with the intention of becoming a Questioned Document Examiner. I got sidetracked along the way for Forensic Art and Forensic Sculpture instead, but I never lost my interest in this discipline.

One of the most interesting things is this: when people try to write false content, there are ways to analyze the sample toward finding the deeper truth.

Cognitive Differences

Writing out lies is different from creating truth on paper, because the brain has a way of making those cognitive characteristics different, thus exposing the real truth. The differences can be seen in the flow of the writing, the length of the strokes, and the amount of pressure of the pen against the page.

A new research study was conducted at the Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Services at the University of Haifa, a school tucked into the Carmel Mountain ridge southeast of the city of Haifa and surrounded by the Carmel National Park in Israel.

The research was based on a computerized "writing-analysis system" meant to measure the differences in the pressure on the page, the duration of the pen when put to page and off again, and the flow of writing.

According to Dr. Gil Luria of the Department of Human Services and Dr. Sara Rosenblum of the Department of Occupational Therapy, who carried out the research, "It seems that the act of writing a false text involves extensive cognitive resources, and the automatic act of writing is thereby affected." 

Hard to Decipher Lies

Most people would agree it's difficult to identify lies. We have a need to trust people, and there are many complex problems to solve to be sure about truthfulness and generally, we aren't good at reading them. Even today, the polygraph or lie detector, which has been used as an investigative device by law enforcement and various federal agencies, can be beaten. The typical machine is set up to measure and record physiological changes in the body. There is, in fact, an organization set up to challenge and discredit the polygraph called Anti-polygraph.org, and you'll find many sites on how to beat the polygraph. And it's true, the test has no scientific basis in a court of law.

Joe Navarro

If you remember my interview with Joe Navarro and his book What Every Body is Saying, he writes, “The truth is that identifying deceit is so difficult that repeated studies begun in the 1980s show that most of us—including judges, attorneys, clinicians, police officers, FBI agents, politicians, teachers, mothers, fathers and spouses—are no better than chance (fifty-fifty) when it comes to detecting deception.”

The First Effort

The first recorded effort to construct a mechanical device to measure emotion and determine truth and deception came from Cesar Lombroso. In 1885, Lombroso was recording changes in blood pressure in police cases in Italy with some success.

The Changes Induced by Lying

When a person lies, the body reacts. These physiological changes result from interactions between chemical processes in the body, triggered by mental states or emotions that are behavioral. In the case of a polygraph, the questions act as the stressors. The alterations can include changes in blood pressure, an increase in pulse, higher respiration, skin conductivity—perspiration or sweating—and what is generally referred to as breaking rhythms or ratios. The belief is that during a series of questions, the deceptive answers produce physiological responses that can be differentiated from those associated with non-deceptive answers.

Research Now

The Haifa study examined whether the act of lying causes cognitive, or brain, changes. The approach is based on the assumption that lying—writing lies in this particular case—requires special resources and causes cognitive stress, which in turn affects performance that would otherwise be carried out automatically.

To start the survey, participants were asked to write two paragraphs. In the beginning, the first writing was supposed to describe an event that actually took place. Then volunteers were instructed to follow that with a description of an event that didn’t actually occur.

Electronic Pen to Electronic Board

The instrument to collect the data was an electronic pen and board developed with the aid of a program that Dr. Rosenblum participated in years earlier. The system manually measures pressure, rhythm, speed, frequency and duration of writing.


Deceptive writing produces a consistently heavier pressure on the page than writing the truth. In turn, the "flow of strokes when writing false text, as expressed in the height and length of the letters, is distinctly different from these elements in truthful writing." In addition, the act of thinking about writing falsely sets up a different performance, and the letters expressed are changed in both size and duration.

Something to Think About

"A lie detector that analyses handwriting has many advantages over the existing detectors, since it is less threatening for the person being examined, is much more objective and does not depend on human interpretation. The system also provides measures that the individual has difficulty controlling during performance. This is certainly a system that can improve—alongside the existing detectors—our ability to identify lies," the Haifa researchers concluded.

Searching to perfect the system is a worthwhile goal.

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