Bits of Psychology – How did the Rorschach test came about?

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?

Rorschach test

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[1]. 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.[2] 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?

  1. It is not set up to identify personality disorders or personality traits.
  2. The result of the test can depend on the person scoring the test. This is not good.
  3. 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.

[1] Wikipedia on Klecksography.

[2] Wikipedia on the Rorschach test.

25 thoughts on “Bits of Psychology – How did the Rorschach test came about?

  1. Fascinating. It fascinates me that the test *can* be used for very specific disorders, i.e. that one person would see something different from another. Different enough for somebody to form a diagnosis, in any case.
    You should present this test someday to see how we all do! Seriously, I would be interested to learn how the tst is marked.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I guess but I don’t know anything about it is that there is a difference in how your thoughts are organised around the blot.
      To be able to score the test, you need to follow a very specific and expensive training.
      The position of the therapist is important; you’ll sit a little behind the person. Not in front. Then you need to make notes, what is said first, how many time takes it the subject to respond, what figure do you see? Do you focus of the figure of the white spaces? Do see the details or the whole picture etc.
      All the notes are collected and scored.
      I believe that thought patterns will differ between disorders. That an sich is quite logical as the most illnesses present themselves through ‘faults’ in thinking. When we think about a mental illness with its symptoms as a specific manner of looking at the world, mostly in order to protect ourselves, it is very possible that that specific window or outlook at the world will also be concentrated in the reactions to the blots. The fact that they are meaningless, the present you with a blank canvas to project your inner world into. It is actually the same what you do in analysis where the therapist doesn’t talk too much either.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is okay, I was only joking with you. But it is useful to learn that it is not just the interpretation, but other factors, too, which come into play. What you say makes perfect sense, in that it gives an insight into how somebody sees the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oops I did not get the joke 🙂 but I do now and I’m laughing with myself, all serious in my answer!
        See I’m always ready to answer or to clear things up when I can.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Imagine we didn’t, it would be so utterly boring! Diversity for the win 🙂
        Those are not silly questions, not at all, I like to try to come up with an answer and it’s not always easy. It takes me some thinking work too!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. That would be a tricky one I suppose. As the Rorschach is designed from an psychoanalytical point of view, the mania in bipolar would fall on the neurosis type in general. I don’t know if you can take the test twice, I mean in a manic state and in a not manic state.
      As a structure in personality bipolar doesn’t fall on the schizophrenic spectrum. I would guess active mania could be situated on the mark between neurosis and psychosis but definitely not in the schizophrenic realm. That is, at least, how I understand the purpose of the test.
      Mind you that Rorschach didn’t got the time to refine the blots; maybe he would have added interpretations to differentiate bipolar and uni-polar depression. We’ll never know.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh you are the second one to lure me into answering a joking question! 🤣🤣🤣
        I love to have funny friends here!
        But I still like to answer your questions when I can 😊😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I looked at my scheduled post and it is the week after that. A longer waiting time ’cause next week I’ll have a post on all the ins and outs of the union and paperwork. Maybe not that exciting but still fun (like shake your head fun).

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad to have a fan of my series 🙂 About the test as the blots are the same like you said I don’t know how many time you can take the test. On the other hand I guess that people who use it are prepared for the fact that the blots are known to the bigger public.
      Other tests have also the same set of questions like the MMPI but they’ve developed so many questions (that is why it is called a ‘battery’) that you are less likely to remember them all. But in general every psychological test will be the same otherwise they can’t compare you to the ‘general population’.


  2. I’d heard about the controversy, but not how the test came to be and how it was intended to be used. I can definitely see how it might be helpful to as a tool for schizophrenia, since perception of reality can be so effected. It’s shame things got so confused.

    This sort of reminds me of the whole snake oil salesman phenomenon. I recently did some research on the topic and discovered there are now scientific studies showing that oil from certain aquatic snakes can be beneficial for reducing inflammation. The real reason the term “snake oil” has come to mean quackery isn’t because snake oil was useless but because the products sold as snake oil were fake, filled with common or even dangerous substances like beef tallow and turpentine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I didn’t know that, so the snake oil in itself can be useful. Inflammation is a hot topic nowadays. It’s said to be connected to depression for instance.
      But those ‘salesmen’ filled the bottles up with all sorts of crappy products.
      What’s in a name? I guess I’ll will be using the term snake oil in a different light now. Good to know and thank you for letting me know!

      Liked by 1 person

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