At the time, I was a college student looking for a quick and easy way to earn spending money. The canoe livery could only offer four hours a week; the cafeteria was gross, messy, and too much like actual work; tutoring – as in helping other students learn and understand stuff – was clearly out of my skill range. The only thing left was to be a test subject for the psychology department.   

Psychology experiment subjects were paid by the gig, not the hour, upon completion of each consigned study. Qualified applicants were chosen randomly out of a rotating applicant pool and made anywhere from $20 to $100, depending on the source of funding. If the university itself was footing the bill, it was likely to be a sleep deprivation or caffeine intake study designed by graduate students and would not pay very well. But if you managed to get picked for an externally funded experiment, sponsored by a food manufacturer or an advertising hub or the government, you got paid significantly more. My junior year, I landed a spot in a field research study conducted by the FBI, Detroit Division.

The FBI funded a grant to study the validity of graphoanalysis, and my university had been awarded that grant. There were no stipulations or exclusions regarding gender, age, race, or socioeconomic background. The only requirement was that you had to be able to “convey written thoughts by means of cursive.” Effectively, they were studying the admissibility of handwriting analyses in a court of law.

On day one of the study, 25 of us showed up to a designated classroom and wrote, in our best cursive penmanship, 10 sentences containing all 26 letters of the alphabet. They were inherently silly with the requisite “z” and “x,” but one in particular made us snicker: “Just drive quickly past the zealot’s home, and be extra sure no one is following you.”

The next time we met, many weeks later, we each received a sealed envelope with our name on it and the results of our handwriting analysis inside. We were instructed to open and read the report without looking at anyone else’s. We silently did as we were told. My report was a list of statements under the heading, “Sample-biased Summary,” and it looked something like this:

  • You are desperately insecure but don’t want people to know it.
  • You worry about disapproval from one parent in particular.
  • You frequently hate how you look.
  • You care what other people think to the point of altering your behavior.
  • You want to be famous for doing something important.
  • You have a secret from five years ago that you haven’t told anyone.
  • You currently love someone who doesn’t love you back in the same way.
  • You have gone to extreme/immoral/illegal means to give yourself an advantage over others in your peer group.
  • You often think you don’t deserve the credit you’re given and fear you aren’t as smart as those around you.

I remember feeling like I should have tried to disguise my handwriting because now I was exposed. How could 10 sentences betray me so? The lady in charge instructed us to assess our results and sign our names at the bottom if we felt they were entirely accurate. Then she asked to see a show of hands from those who signed. Everybody’s hand went up. Everybody thought his or her analysis was entirely accurate.

Then the lady told us to trade results with the person next to us. I traded with a girl who I recognized from freshman English. I read her results and they were, word for word, exactly the same as mine. The only difference between our two papers was the signature. We traded again with someone else, and then traded again. Same, same, same. The whole group had been issued identical reports.

When the lady was satisfied that she had sufficiently blown our minds, she said, “The Department of Justice thanks you for helping the FBI officially discredit the theory of holistic and integrative graphology by means of the Barnum Effect, which is a phenomenon where we interpret vague statements as specifically meaningful. So while the attributes on the list seemed to apply to you and you alone, they were actually generalized personality traits of all people your age. Your checks will be mailed immediately.”

In 1991, graphology was officially deemed a pseudo-science, and the practice was banned from use in any legal capacity. They already knew it was phony, they just had to prove it.

However, the 25 test subjects learned something we didn’t know, something that may have otherwise taken us years, if not decades, to learn. Everyone is desperately insecure, everyone hates how they look, everyone has secrets and feels slighted in love. Everyone has done things they’re ashamed of and feels they don’t deserve to be where they are.

The $100 I received for participating in this study is long gone but the invaluable insight I gained has been more useful than a room full of therapists: We’re all desperately insecure and think we’re ugly, Just admit it and move on.