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What Does Your Signature Say About You?

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Originally posted on April 17, 2014.

Ask many people what their signature says about them and they’ll give you a pat answer: “My name.” Does your signature say more than that? A cottage industry exists, in which “graphoanalysts” will tell us how our penmanship illustrates our ambitions, insecurities, and intuitive abilities. (See here, for an example). But if we don’t want to turn to a graphoanalyst, can psychological science offer a substitute?

It can—and the best place to start is how big you write your name. The bigger you write your name, the more likely you hold a powerful position. For example, tenured, compared to nontenured, American Professors have bigger signatures. Ask people to imagine being the U.S. president, compared to a lower status person, and the chances of their signature size increasing go up. These effects aren’t unique to Americans. They have been replicated in Irani samples, too.

A recent suite of studies caught my attention. They showed that subliminally linking positive words to a person’s identity increased the person’s signature size. In one study, Oxford University students viewed either positive words (happy, smart) or neutral words (bench, paper). To link the words to participant’s sense of identity, the researchers presented the word ‘I’ quickly before each word. Next, they had participants sign their names.

Imagine being part of the study. You sign your name at the beginning, complete a computer task, and then sign your name again. You don’t know it, but you may have had your self-esteem raised. And if you did, your signature size likely grew without you knowing it.

We sign our names often, which might help explain why we come to like the letters in our name more than other letters. The next time someone asks for your signature, take a good look at how much paper real estate it uses. It might say more about you than you think.  

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”