Reflex of Avoidance in Spatial Restrictions for Signatures and Handwritten Entries
Chris Rush Burkey* and Larry S Miller*
Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, USA
*Corresponding author: Chris Rush Burkey, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, USA, Tel: +1 4234395963; E-mail: rushc@.etsu.edu
Larry S Miller, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, USA, Tel: +1 4234395964; Fax: +1 4234394660; E-mail: MILLERLS@mail.etsu.edu
Citation: Burkey CR, Miller LS (2017) Reflex of Avoidance in Spatial Restrictions for Signatures and Handwritten Entries. J Forensic Sci Digit Investig 2017: 8-12. doi:https://doi.org/10.29199/2637-7136/FSDI-101011
Received: 15 June, 2017; Accepted: 24 August, 2017; Published: 13 September, 2017
Within the various disputed documents encountered in the science of forensic document examination, questioned handwriting is the most prevalent. This includes the simulation or alteration of handwriting and signatures. The current study examined the changes that may occur in writing when given a limited amount of space. Several participants completed a survey wherein writing samples were taken under varying space allowances. These space restrictions were made under differing conditions such as boxed signatures, additions to previously written material, and alterations to letters and numbers. The results of the study found characteristics of reflex of avoidance in the participants’ handwriting. These characteristics included changes in height, width, and letter spacing in accordance to the amount of space provided. The examples of reflex of avoidance defined throughout this study may serve to assist forensic document examiners in the identification of variations in handwriting due to limited space and the detection of alterations within questioned documents.
Keywords: Altered Documents; Forensic Document Examination; Handwriting; Questioned Documents; Signatures
The breadth of knowledge of forensic document examiners must be quite vast, for they observe an assortment of conditions within their field. They must be knowledgeable with regard to papers, inks, handwriting, print processes, the identification of additions and substitutions, obliterated and erased materials, the care and handling of documents, and proper courtroom procedure . This array of knowledge is required to be credible within the field, yet some types of questioned documents are encountered by examiners more often than others - wills, contracts, property deeds, and hand-written records. In fact, well over 70 percent of document examiners’ efforts are focused primarily on handwriting and signatures .
Handwriting is considered an acquired skill often referred to as a complex perceptual motor task [2,3]. Handwriting, similarly to fingerprints, is unique to the individual, making it a valuable identifying tool. Genuine writing by the same writer does, however, vary to some extent. Albert S. Osborn, also known as the father of document examination, explains that these variations occur because the “arm, hands, and fingers do not constitute an absolutely accurate reproducing machine” . He purposed that variations in authentic writing most often occur in superficial sections, in size and proportion, as well as the extent of care given to the written act. Consequently, the writing process, along with individual variations becomes fairly fixed . Although this skill is subconscious and becomes a relatively fixed action over time, certain variables may cause extreme changes in one’s writing. These variables consist of extrinsic and intrinsic conditions. Extrinsic factors which may alter handwriting include lighting, writing instrument, writing surface, temperature, and myriad other possible conditions. Intrinsic factors may include circumstances beyond the writer’s control such as disease, tremors or fatigue . These formative aspects, which have the potential to produce variations in handwriting, cause document examiners to face the task of determining whether or not the writing is authentic.
One of the most understudied topics associated with variations in handwriting is that of restricted space. To date, only three studies have examined the changes in handwriting given various spatial restrictions. This phenomenon was first examined by Morton in 1980 when he studied the characteristics of crowded signatures. He concluded that signatures change slightly both vertically and horizontally when writing space is restricted. Over thirty years later, Simon, Spencer and Auer  examined the signatures of 30 participants under various space restrictions. These restrictions were similar to what may be encountered when signing for a passport. They found statistically significant changes in overall length and width in the signatures written in the smallest spaces available. They concluded, however, that these changes would most likely not influence a trained document examiner to provide an improper conclusion . In 2015, Donato, Pirlo and Rizzi examined the effects of signatures within various limited spaces via a Wacom Intuos 3 tablet and an Intuos 3 Grip Pen. More specifically, they measured the differences in the participants’ signature velocity, acceleration and pressure given various sizes of signature boxes. This study determined that all participants changed their writing velocity in accordance with the space allowed. Participants’ writing velocity decreased as the boxes became smaller; while there were no statistically significant changes in the participants’ pen pressure and acceleration .
Due to the limited research available on the effects of restricted space on handwriting, researchers and the National Academy of Sciences have established that further research regarding this topic is paramount in the advancement of handwriting and document analysis . The current exploratory study attempted to extend upon the previous research and fill a gap in the current literature by examining an extrinsic factor which may influence handwriting, referred to herein as reflex of avoidance. Reflex of avoidance is defined as the intentional effort on the part of a writer to remain within set boundaries and/or the avoidance of writing over preexisting written entries or lines on a writing substrate. This action may occur in handwritten signatures as well as handwritten insertions of both an authentic and non-authentic nature. Forensic document examiners may encounter indications of reflex of avoidance in such documents as checks, passports, medical records, dated entries on calendars, account ledgers, pharmaceutical records, prescriptions, banking instruments, diaries, and others. Unlike the previous studies which only examined the effects of spatial restrictions on signatures [6,7], the current study investigated and compared the methods in which an author may alter his or her handwriting in confined spaces and the changes made to one’s writing regarding insertions made to preexisting writing.
A convenience sample of 150 students enrolled in criminal justice classes at a regional state university were selected to participate in the study. The subjects were asked to complete a demographic questionnaire and an instrument designed to elicit information on how they might change their handwriting habits to adhere to restrictions of space. The instrument consisted of a variety of exercises where the subject signed the name Thomas Jefferson in an unrestricted space (control), on lines of different lengths (measuring from 3 to 11 centimeters), and within rectangular boxes of different sizes (measuring from 4.5 x 0.9 to 8.5 x 1.2 centimeters). Subjects were also asked to insert sentences within previously written paragraphs, change answers on test items, and change numerical entries to a different number. These exercises were designed to emulate cases forensic document examiners frequently encounter such as insertions made in medical records and check forgery. All of the subjects completed the questionnaire utilizing an ink pen or pencil of their choice. Additionally, all of the participants were seated at a student desk in one of the university classrooms during the completion of the survey.
Of the 150 subject responses, 112 were found to be adequate for the present study. The thirty-eight responses not selected were determined to be inappropriate due to failure on the part of the respondent to follow directions or to fully complete the instrument and/or the questionnaire. The remaining 112 respondents consisted of 68 males and 44 females all ranging in age from 18 to 65 years. Educational levels of the respondents ranged from some college (first year freshmen) to graduate students (master degree students). Respondents were predominately right-handed (n = 91) and none suffered from any anomaly that could affect their handwriting skills (i.e., medications, physical, and visual conditions).
Measurements and comparisons of the control and experimental handwritten entries were made to determine the amount or degree of change spatial restrictions might have on the entries. Similar to a study done by Morton  on the effects of crowding, measurements were taken for overall height and length ratios of signature entries. These measures yielded numerical (interval level) data that could be statistically analyzed using parametric techniques (analysis of variance). Other measures involved basic observations as to whether or not (yes/no) the respondent avoided writing across existing lines and/or compressed their writing to fit within a given space. These were treated as dichotomous nominal variables and tested for differences between male and female respondents using Chi-Square.
Nearly all (98%) of the respondents displayed changes in their handwritten entries to accommodate the spatial restrictions. Two of the respondents showed no change in their normal handwriting to accommodate the spatial restrictions. Both of these individuals were male under 20 years old. An example is shown in figure 1. The remaining 110 respondents displayed a wide range of change in their handwriting based on whether the spatial restriction consisted of lines, boxes, or insertions.
Figure 1: Example of one respondent who showed no change in their handwriting with spatial restrictions.
While nearly all of the 110 respondents showed some signs of altering their handwriting to accommodate shorter lines, the difference in compression measurements (length and width) was not significant (p > .05). Many respondents started writing normally but then trailed off or horizontally compressed the last name in the signature when writing on shorter lines (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Example of writer compressing the last word on shorter signature lines.
In contrast, when subjects wrote within smaller boxes, the compression exhibited in the signatures was significantly different than those within larger boxes or unrestricted spaces (p < .05, table 1). Smaller boxes resulted in both vertical and horizontal compression of the signatures for most respondents; however, no significant changes were found in letter formations or proportional spacing of the signatures (Figure 3).fv
Figure 3: Example of compression within smaller boxes.
Similar to signatures written within boxes, signatures written on vertically spaced lines also showed a significant degree of compression for a large majority of the respondents (p < .05, table 1). As figure 4 depicts, respondents typically avoided writing over handwritten entries in lines immediately above by using vertical compression.
Length of Signature Based on Unrestricted Size and Restricted Box Size.
Multiple Comparisons (Tukey HSD) Results.
Width of Signatures Based on Unrestricted Size and Restricted Box Size.
Multiple Comparisons (Tukey HSD) Results.
Length of Signatures Based on Unrestricted Size and Restricted Line Size.
Multiple Comparisons (Tukey HSD) Results.
Vertical Spacing of Signatures Based on Unrestricted Size and Restricted Line Size.
Table 1: Analysis of Variance Results for Signature Measurements.
Figure 4: Example of vertical compression to avoid written lines. This is most notable in the word Jefferson on line 2.
The most obvious reflex of avoidance was depicted in sentence insertions. Subjects were asked to write three to four sentences on the instrument and then go back and add a sentence between two of those sentences. All of the respondents showed some degree of vertical compression (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Inserted lines showing vertical compression to avoid writing across writing already present.
Most of the respondents attempted to avoid writing through existing handwritten lines. This was true even when they were not told to try and make the insertion look as though it was not inserted. Numerical insertions showed considerable variation among the respondents. The subjects were asked to change the number 10 to 9,510 on a line and to change the number 10 to 6,410 in a box. A slight majority of the subject (56%) attempted to keep the numbers on the line while the remaining respondents paid little or no attention to the line.
Interestingly, most of those making an attempt to keep the numbers on the line were female. Numbers within boxes showed more attempts by respondents to write within the box. A larger majority of the respondents (72%) attempted to keep the inserted numbers in the boxes as opposed to lines (Figure 6). However, there were no significant differences found between males and females with the box restriction (Chi-Square = 1.44, 1df, p > .05). Respondents were also asked to change a $10.00 amount within a box to $1,000.00. A large majority of the respondents (86%) attempted to keep the added numbers within the box provided. Again, there were no significant differences found between males and females (Chi-Square = 2.12, 1df, p > .05). However, it was noted that males seemed more skilled at making the insertions less noticeable than females.
Figure 6: Two writers inserting numbers on lines and boxes. Most writers tried to keep the writing within the spatial limitations (left) while some ignored the spatial restrictions (right).
Perhaps the most interesting finding in the present study was the grade change exercise. Respondents were asked to change a graded answer on a simulated test answer sheet. The letter A was written in pencil and marked over using a red ink pen. The respondents were asked to change the letter A to the letter B as if they were attempting to cheat on the test and claim an error in grading on the part of the instructor. Given that the respondents were all students, the exercise was probably the most familiar to many of them. Most of the respondents erased the letter A and inserted the letter B using pencils provided to them. Most surprising was the degree of reflex of avoidance the respondents displayed. A majority of the respondents (68%) attempted to avoid writing across the already present red ink mark (Figure 7). There were no significant differences found between males and females in this regard (Chi-Square = 1.27, 1df, p > .05). Several respondents used a portion of the letter A to form the letter B in order to avoid writing over the red ink mark. Many respondents simply wrote as close to the red mark without going over it or changed to a slightly different pencil pressure while crossing the red line.
Figure 7: Three examples of how writers avoided writing across the red line.
While the current research shed light on a topic virtually untouched by researchers and forensic document examiners, it is not without limitations. First, the participants were required to sign the name Thomas Jefferson rather than their personal signature. This signature was unfamiliar to the participants which may have affected their natural writing style. We did, however, attempt to control for this anomaly, by having the participants provide numerous signatures in an unrestricted area for the purposes of our comparison group. In addition, having the participants all sign the same name minimized variables associated with differing signature formations. Second, regarding the insertion exercise, we cannot be certain that the participant did not skip through the questionnaire to determine that they would later be asked to make insertions to their already requested handwritten entries.
While we made every attempt to prevent the participants from reading ahead before filling out the survey, we cannot definitively state that all of the participants properly followed the instructions regarding this particular exercise. The results derived from this portion of the survey, however, revealed that all of the participants displayed signs of reflex of avoidance, indicating the likelihood of them not following the instructions improbable. Lastly, while the current research examined 112 individuals, it may not generalize to all individuals under all writing conditions. Future research should examine how reflex of avoidance may be displayed among different age groups, genders, and those with various physical and mental ailments. In addition, researchers should assess signs of reflex of avoidance under a variety of writing conditions such as excessive cold or heat, as well as diverse writing substrates.
Discussion and Conclusion
As the present study reveals, most people alter their handwriting to accommodate spatial restrictions. This supports the contentions and assumptions of authorities in the forensic document examination discipline. In addition, the present study indicates that reflex of avoidance in handwriting occurs not only in attempts to deceive or inconspicuously insert handwritten entries, as in the grade change exercise, but also in normal insertions where there is no intention to deceive. Reflex of avoidance is, however, more apparent in efforts to make the handwritten entry un-noticeable.
Reflex of avoidance is identified when compression (vertical and/or horizontal) occurs in a handwritten entry. Horizontal compression is most apparent in writing on short lines, while vertical compression is most apparent in writings within boxes or between lines. Reflex of avoidance is also common with insertions between handwriting already present.
The writer typically tries not to write over existing lines. It is not known why most people depict this characteristic. It may be associated with early education wherein a person is rewarded for coloring within the lines in Kindergarten. Additionally, it is unknown why females are more prone to reflex of avoidance than males. Again, it may be an early educational or cultural condition wherein females’ handwriting tends to be neater than males. Males, however, displayed more skill at attempting to deceive with insertions and inconspicuous changes in their handwritten entries than females.
The current study revealed that the extrinsic factor identified as reflex of avoidance typically distorts the handwriting of an individual. Letter formations and proportional spacings, however, are not significantly altered. Certain letter formations, particularly the ascending and descending strokes, may be altered to avoid crossing over existing lines. Also, baseline adherence is typically altered to avoid writing over existing lines which may affect the line quality of the handwritten entries.
While reflex of avoidance generally does not distort the handwriting to the point document examiners could not render proper identification, it may prove useful for document examiners to have exemplars written in the same manner for comparison purposes. This is especially true for questioned signatures written within box restrictions or in limited spatial substrates such as check endorsements. And, with the increasing use of signatures created on digital tablets, the document examiner may benefit from knowing the size of the writing area on the tablet itself . While this study did not address digital signatures on limited space, it would stand to reason that reflex of avoidance would also occur in a digital format. This may be an area for future study.