Bubble hand, bubble head?
June 25, 2010 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Big, round bubble handwriting: does it correlate with intelligence? If so, why might this be the case?

As a sometime college teacher, I've seen a lot of handwriting in my day, a fairly frequent variant among which has been the "bubble"-style handwriting, large and rounded (some examples here). Today at the coffee shop, I was eavesdropping on a middle-aged woman's dense and blowhard-y conversation, and suddenly thought (completely unjustifiably), "I bet she's got big bubble handwriting." On further consideration I realized that I don't believe I've ever seen that sort of handwriting style in a person whom I'd characterize as highly intelligent. [I know there are about a billion different and hotly contested ways of defining intelligence, but for the purposes of this question I'll use a narrow and booksmarts-slanted definition of "highly intelligent" as "capable, assuming the appropriate prereqs, of earning relatively easy A's in both your average undergraduate-level multivariable calculus course and your average undergrad history course."]

I know that this bubble handwriting is somewhat more common among girls, but I've also known several guys who wrote this way, none of whom were especially smart. And I also know a whole bunch of highly intelligent women and capable scholars (using my definition), none of whom have bubble handwriting, even though many of them are of the same age and had exactly the same penmanship training as the "bubblers."

Just to clarify, my hypothesis is (unexceptional students (bubble handwriting) ), not vice-versa; I've certainly known a lot of dull people with penmanship that wasn't in any way bubbly. I'm also not saying that bubblers are necessarily stupid; just that I've never seen any that were exceptionally bright. My question: are there examples, either from the annals of history or from anyone's personal experience, that disprove this hypothesis? And if the rough association does exist, what on earth could be causing this?

Also, I realize any question that frankly discusses the intelligence of human populations in the aggregate is likely to get a lot of hate, but I'm honestly curious about this, and not in any way looking for grounds to oppress or denigrate the bubblers of the world. If this is just a weird prejudice of mine, then please, disabuse me!
posted by gallusgallus to Grab Bag (57 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. You're wrong. My handwriting veers into bubbly territory, yet I am wholly capable of meeting your arbitrary intelligence requirements. I got As in undergrad with a modicum of effort and am getting the same results in grad school.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:18 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

are there examples, either from the annals of history or from anyone's personal experience, that disprove this hypothesis

Well, if you were truly curious about the hypothesis, then an individual's personal datapoint won't go towards proving/ disproving this notion in any way.
posted by Think_Long at 10:18 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

See also.
posted by fish tick at 10:18 AM on June 25, 2010

I've wondered the same thing. My take? It's an in-group affectation for girls who are ashamed to appear smart.
posted by applemeat at 10:20 AM on June 25, 2010 [21 favorites]

One of my very good friends has relatively bubbly handwriting, and she's super smart. I have bad/decent handwriting, and I'm pretty smart, too. I'm a guy.
posted by papayaninja at 10:20 AM on June 25, 2010

A close female relative of mine has handwriting that looks like someone threw a bunch of Cheerios on some paper. She's pretty brilliant (an economist currently employed by the national bank of a largish country.) If such things hold weight with you, her IQ is near genius level, and her SAT scores were pretty close to 1600.
posted by punchtothehead at 10:21 AM on June 25, 2010

Well, I write with bubbly handwriting quite often (I have absolutely no consistent style) and I have a PhD in Neuroscience, focusing on reproductive and developmental neurobiology. So I'm probably pretty smart.
posted by gaspode at 10:23 AM on June 25, 2010

Also, the more I think about this...are you sure that your first example is truly what you're thinking of? That's more or less what my writing looks like, but until this question, I would have never considered it bubbly.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:24 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Folks, gallusgallus's question questions a trend--not a particular person. So just because your handwriting happens to bubbly and you're very smart does not mean that a lot of not-terribly-smart-appearing people don't exhibit bubbly handwriting.
posted by applemeat at 10:26 AM on June 25, 2010

Um, @applement. Reread the question: "My question: are there examples, either from the annals of history or from anyone's personal experience, that disprove this hypothesis?"

That's exactly what these answers have been...examples from personal experience that disprove this hypothesis.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:27 AM on June 25, 2010

my hypothesis is (unexceptional students (bubble handwriting) )
gallusgallus asked for personal examples, applemeat, and those given would appear to contradict the hypothesis.
posted by gaspode at 10:29 AM on June 25, 2010

Here's another take; I too have taught college classes and realized early on that I had a bias which told me not to take seriously the work of "bubble writers." (Bubble writers, in my mind, were the silly girls who were into make-up and not intellectual like me. A bias!) Once I realized that I had this bias I paid more attention to the written work and realized I was being unfair. Sure some of the bubble writers were less sophisticated in their thinking (my preferred way of saying "less intelligent'), but some were sophisticated in their thinking (at about the same rate as the non-bubble writers). Maybe you are having a bout of confirmation bias.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:29 AM on June 25, 2010 [12 favorites]

My handwriting is similar to the first sample and I'm a researcher at a major university. Anecdata point.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:31 AM on June 25, 2010

I'm pretty sure I've known lots of smart people with bubbly hand-writing, but to be honest I haven't really looked at anyone else's handwriting for many years and I don't remember examples.

However, here is a speculative hypothesis: smart people may be less exposed to the social pressures that encourage bubble writing.

Allow me to explain. you suggest in your post that bubbly hand-writing is propagated by social enforcement among girls in school -- other girls will object to your notes or homework or whatever unless it is properly bubbled. Suppose in addition you are in a social environment where smart people (girls?) are likely to be relatively isolated socially, because of ostracism or other reasons. In such a case, smart girls will be less subject to the social enforcement of bubbly writing, because they are less socially networked generally. So smart people (girls) will be less likely to have bubbly handwriting, because they were less subject to the social pressures that enforced bubbly handwriting.

Note that this is a story that only applies to some social milieux, if any. But if it sounds familiar to you, maybe there's something to it.
posted by grobstein at 10:32 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

I had Palmer Method cursive drilled into my head as a kid. My handwriting is completely unexceptional as a result-- it looks more or less like what was in the book in second grade, aside from my vicious pen pressure.

I'm sure plenty of people, regardless of intellect, were raised in likewise repressive handwriting regimes and thus reveal nothing other than "gee, that's some nice Palmer Method" to folks who know.

Also, are we measuring intellect, or social traits that people erroneously connect with intellect? I know some pretty flighty-seeming people who landed scholarships and got excellent grades despite seeming completely disconnected from common sense.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:35 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is just a (ridiculous) observation of mine, but the bubble writing appears to take longer to write than the "normal" writing. I would not classify myself as exceptionally bright. I HAVE always been a great student, though, and I am not a bubbler.

My thought: it takes much longer to take notes in school using the bubble writing. So, there might be a correlation between the folks who are better at taking notes in class (those who are writing faster) excelling in school, therefore becoming "book smarts" intelligent (like what you've observed) and those students who write too slowly to take adequate notes (or simply don't bother) doing poorly in classes. So, the habit of taking notes is easier to keep up for those fast writers than the slow ones. This depends on how important note taking is, though. Not every person learns this way. I realize that you are not making the broad assumption that bubbly writing=dumb, and (I don't think) this solution does either.

Then again, this could just be hogwash. I am not a scientist. No hatin'. I'm not even 100% sure that bubbly writing takes longer for most people, but I've observed this in classes. Tell me if I'm wrong.
posted by Lizsterr at 10:37 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

As an extension of your hypothesis, I'd say a larger issue is that penmanship as a whole, and cursive writing isn't taught the way it once was.

From wikipedia:
The teaching of cursive has been de-emphasized in many public schools, but is still used for situations such as timed tests with large writing portions, where it is considered faster. Also being able to write in a fair-hand is still looked as a sign of literacy in many countries.

I used to work in the archives of a noted figure that consisted largely of hand written correspondence with famous individuals. There is a distinct correlation between both class/education and era in handwriting (anecdotal). Handwritten letters used to be a work of art. I haven't done the research into when the penmanship/cursive break in education was made, but I'd wonder if that is tied to your hypothesis.
posted by librarianamy at 10:37 AM on June 25, 2010

How would handwriting translate from a high IQ? Check out Einstein's writing. It is not bubbly.
What we seem to have is anacdotes here: those who are smart tell us they write bubbly and surprise, smart people know other smart people...let's hear from the dummies now.
posted by Postroad at 10:37 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Handwriting analysis as a tool for IQ evaluation is deeply flawed. Just as a few variants, let's take a brief look at the different ways handwriting might be taught in different schools at different times, including how left handed people are taught to write (my father's left hand was strapped across his back so he wouldn't go to hell for writing with it.) Don't forget to take into account the rates of learning disabilities and/or disabilities that affect fine motor skill development. Let's discuss the loss of the Palmer method, the way that cursive is being phased out in schools as unnecessary in the 21st century, peer pressure, gender differences, hell, peer pressure as related to gender differences in handwriting and so on and on and on. In other words, there's a whole lot more that goes into any person's handwriting than intelligence, so honestly, at best this is way too simplistic.

On the other hand, handwriting analysis to find out the deep secrets of personality, astrological sign and how likely it is that the writer will find happiness in love, as well as his or her special lottery number, is a respected and well known scientific tool, right up there with tea leaves and palmistry.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:40 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

"let's hear from the dummies now"

I'm told that I have beautiful, non-bubbly handwriting and I'm of distinctly average --if not below-average-- intelligence.
posted by ceri richard at 10:43 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

gallusgallus asked for personal examples, applemeat, and those given would appear to contradict the hypothesis.

Point taken. Guys, I'm sorry.

It's still an interesting, if provocative, question. But I don't think that Metafilter, populated largely by smart people who are curious about the world around them, is the best testing ground to provide gallusgallus the most accurate insights.
posted by applemeat at 10:44 AM on June 25, 2010

Oftentimes very smart people have very messy handwriting because they're struggling to keep their word output in sync with their brain output.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:45 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

nthing that asking for anecdotal evidence like this is going to do very little to either support or discredit your hypothesis.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 10:46 AM on June 25, 2010

applemeat , I agree.

As I said above, I am perhaps slightly above average intelligence (certainly not exceptional), and I am not a bubbler.
posted by Lizsterr at 10:47 AM on June 25, 2010

I guess a counter question may be in order to the OP. Why WOULD bubble handwriting denote less sophistication? The basic breakdown biological vs social seems to quickly dismiss a biological basis. So, there is some social basis for bubble writing? Perhaps. Translating that into a broad assertion bubble writing = dumbness is pretty tricky as it leads to a tentative conclusion that handwriting styles denote intelligence level, so what handwriting indicated above average intelligence? Given that even spelling is a difficult criteria to judge intelligence by, I've a hard time accepting what your handwriting looks like is any indication.

I could tentatively see an argument that handwriting may denote the emotional mindset present when someone is learning to write. I find my own handwriting (which is atrocious) even varies dependent on how I am feeling at the time. But, emotion state has little to do with intelligence.

It sounds like you drifted into confirmation bias, where seeing the handwriting of some lackluster students = bubbles there came the assumption that bubbles = lackluster students. Asa sometimes college instructor I hope you can challenge yourself and
posted by edgeways at 10:47 AM on June 25, 2010

The question makes me wonder about the frequency of the following:

You sit down to grade papers and, upon laying eyes on the bubbly handwriting, you think, "Oh, boy. Here comes another one." After which you interpret the student's answers in an unflattering light, while similar answers written in less bubbly handwriting aren't subject to such harsh prejudgment. This leads to a sort of feedback loop in which your initial prejudice inevitably leads to more evidence to support it.

Here's something to try: Think of the "type" of person who uses bubbly penmanship. Just write a dozen or so adjectives down as they occur to you and try not to censor yourself. Then, after your list is complete, try to think about whether you've ever actually known anyone like that. When I tried this a specific person from the 5th grade came to mind. I hadn't thought of this person in years, but there they were, living up to all the negative stereotypes I have about bubbly handwriting.

Then next step is to try and remain mindful of the fact that you have negative prejudices against that "type" of person so that you can avoid acting on them in the future. If you're lucky, then the brilliant, bubble-writing students you grade will never know they need to thank you for the hard work you put into overcoming your prejudice. For what it's worth, you can try this with other prejudices, too.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 10:51 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

As a sometime college teacher, do you have copies of old papers and old grade sets that you could use to tell whether bubble-writers do better or worse when they sit your courses?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:55 AM on June 25, 2010

My own observation is that handwriting is not a reliable guide to anything. Here is one example. Decades ago I once had a brief correspondence with a prisoner named Jesse Shuford (who, I am sure, is not reading this site today). He had absolutely the best handwriting I have ever seen, before or since. Magnificent, flawless handwriting. He was also an admitted thief, and had utterly dreadful grammar and spelling. If he was an intelligent person there was little sign that he had made much use of that intelligence. Our correspondence was not very productive and I gave up on him fairly quickly. But I have never been able to figure out how he wound up with that lovely handwriting. If he had been in jail for counterfeiting, that would make some sense, but he wasn't. Thieves do not need to have good handwriting. It's just strange.
posted by grizzled at 10:55 AM on June 25, 2010

Valedictorian in my high school was a girl and had very bubbly writing.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:57 AM on June 25, 2010

Quizicalcoatl, that's an exceptionally good point. I think the only way to eliminate that kind of bias would be to insist that all papers come in as unformatted text files, and have an assistant sync up the formatting and print them before you laid your eyes on them.
posted by davejay at 11:10 AM on June 25, 2010

Certain bubbly handwriting reminds me of a calm version of the lettering you see in some street tagging (your last example, for one). Maybe there's an unconsciously racist component to your perceptions?

On the other hand, I went to a very white middle school, and I remember being aware of the "dumb girls with bubbly handwriting" paradigm in a completely unracialized way at that stage. (I - a white girl - also remember deliberately molding my handwriting away from that style because I didn't want to look dumb in writing - so there's almost certainly some self-selection involved in the division between bubblers and non-bubblers). But all of this might covertly be connected to the race issue too, for all I know.

This is a complicated question. Thanks for asking it.
posted by bubukaba at 11:15 AM on June 25, 2010

Bubble writing is certainly much harder on the eyes, and perhaps that accounts for the bias.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:21 AM on June 25, 2010

There was a specific tall-bubble style of handwriting that was in vogue at my middle and high school; all the popular girls wrote that way, as did most of the girls who wanted to be popular. Some of them were flakes, and some of them were really smart.

If I had to put some sort of theory to it, it would be that handwriting is one of the many many things that there is a "cool" way to do, and since smart tends to correlate with "uncool," fewer smart kids feel driven to adopt the cool handwriting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:23 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I taught math and science classes to ages from nine-year-olds through juniors in college. I didn't see a huge correlation between chosen handwriting style and ability in young kids.

Among college students, I did find while marking papers that people with any type of affected-looking handwriting, most of whom were bubble-writers, tended to do worse on homework and exams. Unfortunately, they also made up a disproportionate fraction of those cheating on the homework. The major group exception was people with East/South Asian names, an enormous fraction of whom had both impeccable or highly stylized handwriting and very high scores.

There wasn't much room for handwriting bias in grading due to the nature of the classwork. Almost all of the detected homework cheating was simple direct copying of another person's work, down to duplicated punctuation and spelling errors.

This is all anecdata, of course, but at the time I thought it was consistent with the idea that people who affect certain handwriting styles are responsive to social pressures from the particular set of people they hang out with.
posted by hat at 11:51 AM on June 25, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - folks the question says anecdotes are okay and if you feel like being fighty I suggest you do it in MetaTalk and not here
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:56 AM on June 25, 2010

Should tack on to my previous comment that by far the best work I graded while teaching college students came from a bubble-writer with a standard Western first and last name. Most people followed our cookie-cutter explanations to get to the right answer, but she regularly submitted unique, ingenious solutions that made excellent logical sense while following no pathway we had ever covered in class.
posted by hat at 12:13 PM on June 25, 2010

Bubbly handwriting is common among girls in school. Girls who adopt bubble handwriting tend to me more organized and have better attention spans and thus will get better grades. You will then tend to have a correlation in the early years between good students and neat handwriting. These effects likely even themselves out over time when maturity/organizational skills with other students catch up to the bubble-writers or become less clearly correlated with good grades.

The reason that you might think that bubble handwriting correlates with being an unexceptional student is because most people, by definition, are unexceptional students.
posted by deanc at 12:14 PM on June 25, 2010

I think of bubble writers as being very style conscious - like they probably all dress nice / trendy too. Here's why:
In grade school we learned to write regularly in k-2 then in 3rd or so we started cursive, which we were required to use through 5th grade for all assignments that we handed in. In 6th grade we were allowed to use any handwriting (or that newfangled computer in the corner) to do assignments. I distinctly remember people practicing handwriting to get a distinct style of their own during class, not paying attention to the lesson. The most popular style for girls was variations on bubble. The most popular for boys was either very tiny writing or WRITING IN ALL CAPS THAT WERE ALL THE SAME SIZE LIKE A MACHINE. The people who did this the most were doodlers and better than average at drawing and visually representing ideas (we had to make a lot of posters and shit because our school was "addressing different learning styles").

Basically I don't think it has to do with intelligence, but rather general interest (or lack thereof) in a structured school setting. Bubble writers in my school were more interested in maintaining their stylistic writing than the content of their timed essay on embargos against Cuba.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:18 PM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: For what it's worth, I realize that anecdote(s) != data, but after all anecdotes are what AskMeFi is good at, and I doubt the NSF cheque for my large-scale, rigorously-controlled statistical study of cognitive performance and graphological rotundity will be arriving in the mail anytime soon. I was mostly surprised to find that I hadn't encountered even a single clear countercase in my X-odd years of teaching and living, and was interested to see if there'd be a flood of examples of brilliant bubblers, or if other people's impressions in general corresponded with my own. As I might have expected, the truth turns out to be somewhere in between.

Thanks to everyone who's weighed in! And my apologies to anyone who found the question annoying; rather than getting fighty about it, I'll only say that it was truly not my intent to offend.
posted by gallusgallus at 12:19 PM on June 25, 2010

The major group exception was people with East/South Asian names, an enormous fraction of whom had both impeccable or highly stylized handwriting and very high scores.

Anecdotally, the South Indian tech assistant at my office has jaw-droppingly awesome, Revolutionary-War-archive-document handwriting. People stop and stare when he writes. I think former colonies of the British Empire might be drilling some serious pen skills.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:35 PM on June 25, 2010

I'm smart and a girl but I've been told my writing looks like chicken scratch/a doctor's/a boy's. I want pretty, bubbly writing but it's not in the cards for me!
posted by ShadePlant at 12:47 PM on June 25, 2010

Bubbly handwriting is common among girls in school. Girls who adopt bubble handwriting tend to me more organized and have better attention spans and thus will get better grades. You will then tend to have a correlation in the early years between good students and neat handwriting.

Cite? This cannot possibly be true.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:48 PM on June 25, 2010

I went to a good high school with a lot of smart kids. We were the children of parents with advanced degrees in science, of engineers and of doctors, and as such were expected to do as well as our parents or better. For the most part, the kids I knew did do extremely well. We had 20 valedictorians (defined as students with a 4.0 throughout high school; most of them did this with AP and honors classes). Many of them went to great schools--Stanford, UC Berkeley, Rice, Harvard, MIT, etc. Six years later, a lot of them are in graduate school, medical school, or have finished law degrees. In a time when the SATs had a maximum of 1600 points, many of the people I knew got over 1500 points. Our AP classes covered multivariable calculus, so I'm pretty sure they didn't have trouble with it in college.

So, did all of these exceptionally smart kids (by your narrow definition) have non-bubbly handwriting? No. The ones who cared about handwriting would experiment with whatever style was fashionable (bubbly, mixed case, hearts with i's), and the ones who didn't care had non-bubbly writing. Actually, there was also a subgroup that didn't know how to write in that style, but wanted to, and so had a sort of in-between writing that was meant to be bubbly but was more narrow. I was part of a group of girls that liked to write each other notes in different styles of writing, so for a short time I had really bubbly handwriting. Ten years later, all of us have advanced degrees or are working towards them (law, biology, medical, education, computer science), so I think we're fairly smart.

I will note that the truly, truly exceptional kids at my high school--I mean the kids who had skipped two years ahead and were studying multivariable calculus at the age of 14--had indifferent handwriting. You could tell they didn't care about it except as a means of communication. So maybe being less preoccupied with image is a sign of high intelligence--but it's not a sure thing, since you could easily cultivate an air of not caring.

I think, more than anything, handwriting is about image and environment. I know I changed my style of writing specifically because I knew certain people would think I was stupid--bubbly writing after high school can look like Comic Sans to some people.
posted by millions of peaches at 12:49 PM on June 25, 2010

I like bubble handwriting-- I think it can be quite beautiful-- and only wish that I could achieve it.

I particularly like the way the curves of the letters tend to resemble river meanders, especially the s's (your first and third examples seem to me to show this fairly clearly).

River meanders can be modeled mathematically as sine-generated curves, and sine-generated curves have some very special properties:

Take two points a and b connected by a stretch of river of length L, where L is greater than the straight-line distance from a to b. Now think of all the ways of bending and folding this segment of river into a smooth curve without changing its length or detaching it from its end points. Among all such paths, the sine-generated curve has three interesting properties: It is the path of minimal bending stress, it is the path of minimal variance in direction, and it is the path representing the most likely random walk. ...

I would argue that the bubble style is therefore a naturally optimized style, in that it arguably tends to minimize both the total energy output to produce the letter s and the maximum force exerted at any point in that production (the 'random walk' property is new to me from this link and I don't know how, or if, it could be connected to handwriting).

And it's interesting that the popular name, 'bubble writing', invokes a natural phenomenon so associated with minima and optimization.
posted by jamjam at 1:02 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not trying to be harsh, gallusgallus, but I think that because you have this hypothesis that intelligence correlates with handwriting, it is unfair for you to allow your students to submit handwritten work to you anymore.

I know your intent was not to be offensive. But when someone is making subjective judgments about you, whether or not they have hypotheses like these about "feminine" qualities or about women often has very real, damaging consequences for you, if you've got those qualities or are a woman.

In law school, this is part of why we take our tests anonymously. This is part of why orchestras started having prospective members audition behind a screen.

You owe it to your students judge them on their merits. Frankly, your hypothesis sounds like a load of confirmation bias to me. But even if it weren't, even if 99 out of every 100 bubblers were morons, I think you would probably still be (maybe unconsciously) biased against the 100th bubbler.

The upside of having all your students turn in typed papers, is that later on after grades are in for the class, you can compare handwriting, and do your own informal study to figure out if there's more to what you're thinking.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:10 PM on June 25, 2010 [9 favorites]

"Pretty smart"? Why not take an IQ test and post the results? I got a 161 on the Cattell III B and print rather than use cursive. Overall, my handwriting is smallish, angular, with connections between letters where it makes sense. It's only super-neat when I want it to be.

Rather than "low intelligence", think "extroversion". Many introverts unfairly write off all extroverts as clueless dumbasses, so this might be part of the bias you're dealing with here.
posted by aquafortis at 1:16 PM on June 25, 2010

When I was in seventh grade, it was the style for girls to keep notebooks for one another, which we'd trade off between classes. (We were much less likely to get caught trading notebooks than trading actual notes.)

We wrote our missives to one another in pink, green, turquoise and purple ink. Our handwriting was bubbly, and we dotted our i's with hearts or circles, and we decorated everything with sparkly glitter pens.

In the same way that women of the early twentieth century prided themselves on beautiful penmanship, we prided ourselves on our bubbles. The more skilled amongst us were asked to decorate pencil cases.

But times changed, and we moved on, and by the time we reached college I would be willing to bet that almost all of us had stopped using bubble letters. It wasn't because we were too smart for that particular style of handwriting, but that we had grown up and so had the world around us. In the years since seventh grade we'd discovered a thousand other diversions: rock music, boys, the odd bit of green herbal matter. Handwritten notes had fallen by the wayside, and bubble writing was a distant memory akin to slap bracelets and t-shirt clips.

The only way in which I might -- might -- agree with your original hypothesis is in suggesting that most young women eventually move on from bubble writing. There might be something to be said about people who maintain a style that has long since fallen out of favor. But while I might be mystified by a gal who uses a t-shirt clip nowadays, it would take a lot more for me to jump to a criticism of her intelligence.
posted by brina at 2:17 PM on June 25, 2010

In my case it's social/educational pressure, that girls 'should' have better handwriting than boys. Both my mother and I have the same story - our 'natural' handwriting is a thin, sloping cursive that's nigh-on impossible to read. At school we both got into severe trouble about our handwriting (in my case 'either improve your handwriting or you will fail your A-levels'), and both adopted a non-cursive 'bubble' style because the shapes of the letters seem clearer.

My father still has illegible, thin, cursive handwriting. Apparently, if you're male it doesn't matter if your writing is illegible. I believe that Bill's New Frock summarised this best.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:17 PM on June 25, 2010

Personal anecdote: My handwriting is basically the same as your first example, and I'm significantly above average intelligence. My cursive is illegible to anyone other than me, so it's what I use for taking notes and writing for myself, but I have the bubbly print when I need anything to be read by anyone else.

On the other hand, my sister has completely illegible chicken scratch and never, ever writes in cursive (unless forced), and she's average intelligence.
posted by canadia at 3:23 PM on June 25, 2010

Complete idiot here with minuscule pointy writing, for what it's worth.
posted by tangerine at 4:17 PM on June 25, 2010

Here's another personal anecdote:

My handwriting used to be much more rounded than it is now. I was aware that it looked "girly" and that appearing "girly" would affect how people judged my intelligence. I was already handicapped in the being-taken-seriously department by being small, cute, and female, and so I changed my writing style. I didn't actively train myself to write in a new way, but over time I drifted away from a rounded, print style to a more neutral, cursive one.

I suspect that one of the reasons you have this association of "bubble writing" = "dumb" is that some people who feel pressure to appear intelligence avoid it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:44 PM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Anecdata: I've known many gifted children (98th percentile or above), and the prevalence of "bubble writing" is exactly the same among those groups as among non-gifted children. Which is to say, while it's not correlated to intelligence, in my experience it's much more common among girls than boys, as girls often imitate each other's handwriting styles as a means of impressing each other and fitting in.
posted by hot soup girl at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2010

I've been teaching first year labs to students all fighting each other to get into med school. They're fiercely intelligent, even scarily intelligent, and hard working and competitive. They have all kinds of handwriting including, yes, bubble writing. Also, I often couldn't tell the gender of the student based on their hand writing (I checked at one point because I was curious to see if it was possible). There's one specific style of writing which I've only seen from Chinese students but besides that, it's all stereotyping with about the level of accuracy you'd expect from that (not great).

I also agree with Ashley801 that if you're going to stereotype your students based on handwriting you really should be having them type their assignments. One of the absolute smartest students in my class had very girly handwriting (and was pretty and blonde) and it feels kind of uncomfortable to think she might not get a fair deal along the way because of those things.
posted by shelleycat at 4:50 PM on June 25, 2010

in my experience it's much more common among girls than boys

And I suspect that this is one of the reasons why "bubble writing" is unfairly associated with lesser intelligence. The ditz is a strong stereotype to which many "feminine" things, including handwriting styles, can be associated with. Girls who want to be taken seriously often feel the pressure to distance themselves from the stereotype--precisely why my own handwriting changed. I knew that bubbly writing is associated with ditziness or airheadedness, unfairly or not, and didn't want to be judged based on it. For the same reason, I've never dyed my hair blonde, even though I've tried just about every other color. (Including, at one time, polka dots.)

First impressions matter a lot. If someone judges you based on your handwriting, you work not only has to be good, it has to be good enough to overcome the initial prejudice. You're essentially starting a little bit behind the people who don't suffer from the prejudice, and have to make up more ground.

I have to second the suggestion that gallusgallus stop grading handwritten papers, or at least to constantly do mental checks: am I being fair? am I giving this answer the same grade as this other paper, which has similar quality of content? Never rest assured that you aren't being influenced by prejudice, because prejudice can change your behavior subconsciously even when you think you're being totally fair.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:18 PM on June 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

I pulled out a couple of my high school yearbooks. Around 90% of the girls who signed it had bubbly handwriting - including most of the smartest girls in the class.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:50 PM on June 25, 2010

When I was a kid, the bubble-writing was actually a cool font we developed where all the letters looked like balloons. (The girl who taught me was an A-student.)
posted by jb at 11:45 PM on June 25, 2010

A few quick thoughts:
50 Myths of Popular Psychology (a well-worth it book for many reasons) lists this as myth #36:
"Our handwriting reveals our personality traits". I would recommend getting that book and checking it out, it has worthy citations for this sort of thing.

This might also be an example of a very human tendency to find patterns where there are none (this would be called an illusory correlation).

However, I wouldn't be entirely surprised to see some sort of pattern emerge based on where people went to school. The particular program of handwriting education might correlate with other factors at the school that might influence "intelligence" as you define it.

Given that you know you have this prejudice, I would suggest trying to find some way to "blind" grade, so that you would not be influenced by their bubbly writing. Typing everything is obviously one solution, but there may be others that I haven't thought of.
posted by cogpsychprof at 5:35 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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