Can we use inkblots to diagnose people and why is the test so controversial? I’ll try to formulate some answers to those questions. I’ll also describe the history of the Rorschach which an amusing story with a twist.
We’ll start with bringing some clarity to the question ‘What is the test’?
The Rorschach can tell us how people see the world. The test is a set of 10 inkblots. You look at these (colored) splats and you tell what you see. The a psychologist trained in analyzing the test may tell you something about how you process the world. The use of this test is really controversial. But why and how?
Let’s go back in time for a better understanding of the controversy.
The Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach published the test in 1921. He was interested in inkblots through a popular game in the 19th century called Klecksography. As a child in Switzerland, Hermann Rorschach enjoyed klecksography so much that his friends nicknamed him “Klecks”, meaning “inkblot”. The game was to drop ink onto paper, fold the paper in two, press and so forms symmetrical patterns. The fun of the game was to come up with the most wild answers and explanations of what you could recognize in the inkblot.
As a medical student, Rorschach studied under psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who had taught Carl Jung. In studying Freud’s work on dream symbolism, Rorschach was reminded of his youthful inkblot hobby. He then created his Rorschach test to see if people’s reactions to inkblots could be used as a tool to uncover unconscious desires. The test is essentially a visual variation on Freud’s verbal technique of free association.
French psychologist Alfred Binet had also experimented with inkblots as a creativity test. After the turn of the century, psychological experiments where inkblots were utilized multiplied, with aims such as studying imagination and consciousness. So it wasn’t really that crazy to work in such a creative way.
Early in his career Rorschach noticed that people with schizophrenia seemed to interpret the patterns different from other players. Later he decided to put that observation to the test. He designed hundreds of inkblots and tested them on 300 patients and 100 controls. He concluded that the blots could be used to diagnose mental illness. People without mental conditions tended to give similar answers upon seeing the same blot. People with a similar mental health diagnoses gave answers similar to each other but different from the control group. He then selected 10 inkblots that highlighted the most measurable differences.
In 1921, the year before he died, he published those images in a book called, Psychodiagnostik. The test became widely available along with the coding system that went with it to diagnose various mental disorders such as psychosis.
The images became very popular but as a personality (!) test. Rorschach never intended the inkblots to be used as a general personality test, but developed them as a tool for the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It was not until 1939 that the test was used as a projective test of personality, a use of which Rorschach had always been skeptical.
In the 1960s, the Rorschach was the most widely used projective test. People who weren’t trained in psychology or didn’t work in the field, started using the Rorschach to determine all kind of things. The test was used in HR to select the most favorable candidate for the position available. Even psychologists became very liberal with their application of the test.
After Rorschach’s death, inkblots were so popular that many scientist tried to adding to his work. They tried to determine even more personality traits through the test. Along the way they adopted different ways of interpretation and new ways of scoring.
All these updates on the test were compiled into the ‘Rorschach Comprehensive System’. Not all the additions that were being made were so useful and examined thoroughly. As a result the Rorschach was been seen as something from pseudoscience.
What are the problems with the Rorschach test?
- It is not set up to identify personality disorders or personality traits.
- The result of the test can depend on the person scoring the test. This is not good.
- It doesn’t seem to diagnose most disorders.
Shall we just throw the whole test away?
A study in 2013 analyzed 53 existing meta-analyses on the Rorschach Comprehensive System found that 13 (from the 53) had some really solid support.
It can be used to assess how you see and think about the world or your cognitive and perceptual processes. The meta study told us that the Rorschach is of notable use for identifying those with psychotic disorders such a schizophrenia. People experiencing psychosis will have different thought processes and have difficulties ordering those thoughts, so they will respond differently.
I don’t know if the test is much used today because we have other test to evaluate the mental health or illness. But now we know that the test does hold some value when it is used the way Hermann Rorschach intended. I like to happen to like inkblots.
Resources and further information.